ENG 6362

Andrea Di Giovanni

n.b. Andrea's footnotes have been eaten by the ancient Word program I use; you can get them from the attachment you'll have received.

The Function of Latin in English
from Old English to the Early Modern Period.

Latin and Old English

As David Crystal notes, the Latin language has had a major influence throughout the history of the English language, and while Latin is no longer spoken in lectures, in religious settings, or in the courts of law, its presence in the English lexicon is still clearly discernible. The influence of Latin on the English language began in the Anglo-Saxon period when the first literate Anglo-Saxons were trained by the Catholic Church. The official language of the Catholic Church was Latin, and all parts of the Divine Office, sacraments, and other ceremonies were in Latin. Indeed, literacy in England did not commence until after the arrival of the Augustine and the Roman missionaries in 597, and scholars agree that to be literate in this period was synonymous with the knowledge of Latin. While the runic alphabet was used in England before the arrival of the Roman missionaries, the Latin alphabet was adopted in the monasteries to record the sounds of Anglo-Saxon, in other words, to write English. The sounds of Anglo-Saxon were able to be rendered almost completely by the Latin alphabet, however two runic characters were preserved to represent sounds which did not occur in Latin: thorn (z ) was used for [2 ] and [x ]; and wen was used for [w]. Interlinear glosses in Old English can be found in many Latin psalters of this time, indicating that the Latin alphabet was not only able to represent the sounds of Old English but perhaps led to increased consistency in Old English orthography. In addition, Latin loan words were imported into the English lexicon to describe concepts which could not be described adequately in English. This situation was to become increasingly common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Latin and Middle English

In 1066, Edward the Confessor, king of England died without a direct heir. In the same year Harold Godwineson was selected as king by a group of English lords, however he was killed in battle by William, Duke of Normandy. The Duke of Normandy not only won this battle, but eventually all of England. As C. Millward writes "The Norman invasion… was the most important event ever to occur in the outer history of the English language." With his conquest of England, William also introduced French and replaced with Frenchmen the higher offices of Church and state. A large amount of multilingualism resulted as the ruling minority spoke French, while Latin was used in the Church and emerging universities, and English was still spoken by the uneducated majority. These English speakers would likely have sought to learn some French in order to be upwardly mobile, but as C. Millward notes it was a version of French that was influenced by German, aiding the eventual reinstatement of English in England.

In 1204, King John of England lost all of Normandy except the Channel Islands. This loss forced English landowners in France to choose between France and England, and many, for the sake of convenience, chose to remain in England. With the loss of possessions in France, the knowledge of French became less and less important, the emergence of two different standards supported the increased prestige of English in England. First, the Parisian dialect began to develop as the standard for French pronunciation, and the English manner of speaking French was ridiculed. In addition to the loss of holdings in 1204, England’s defeat in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) resulted in the further loss of Continental lands and without any practical need to continue to speak French, English enjoyed a revitalization. Second, increased communication between the various regions in England itself and the emergence of the standard London dialect alleviated some of the more disparate aspects of English between regions. By the late fourteenth century, English, not French, was once again the main medium of instruction for Latin in England’s schools and in 1362 English became the official language for legal proceedings. By the beginning of the Early Modern Period, English as the dominant and enduring language in England was assured, and its interaction with Latin began to take on a new timbre.

Latin and Early Modern English

In Early Modern English, Latin was an important aspect in two increasingly disparate forums: the academic and the religious, characterized in the Early Modern Period by the movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation. In both the academic and the religious, however, the growing trend as the Early Modern period progressed, was towards the use of the vernacular. As the use of English as an academic tongue grew, so too did its lexicon, as words from Latin were imported and shaped to accommodate English pronunciation in order to fill conceptual voids. What is important to note is that, as English gained increasing significance in educational and ecclesiastical fields, it did so by appropriating areas where only Latin had existed previously. However, it is also important to note that Latin, despite its eventual displacement by English in England, was a crucial skill for a student of letters. As Burke notes, Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida and Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calender were translated into Latin in 1635 and 1653 respectively.

In the academic arena, Latin was very important as part of the humanist ideal of one who excelled in both "contemplation and service to the state." In the English Renaissance there was a revival of interest in classical learning, and Latin was an indispensable skill for studying the classical authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. However, just as Anglo-Saxon clerics translated their Latin texts into Old English, there was an increased demand for the translation of these classics into English, a practice that resulted in an influx of Latinate loanwords. The knowledge of Latin was important both academically and in international relations: it provided a common medium through which the educated elite of the Early Modern Period could share ideas and discoveries, and with no political affiliation, Latin was a neutral mode of communication. Erasmus of Rotterdam is quoted as saying, "within these two literatures [Latin and Greek] is contained all the knowledge which we recognize as of vital importance to mankind." Speaking Latin was the sign of a student and the only guaranteed manner of reaching an international audience.

However, while Erasmus considered Latin to be of the utmost importance in academic circles, he supported the use of the vernacular in the ecclesiastical domain. In 1516, the year before Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses, Erasmus expressed the desire that the Bible should be available in the vernacular, since most of the laity and many clergy did not understand Latin. Scholars have noted the irony of Erasmus’ appeal for the vernacular: he had to use Latin in order to be heard by his target audience. Not only was Latin an increasingly impractical language through which to communicate with the common Christian, but, as Millward notes, "association with the Roman Catholic Church and England’s continental adversaries tended to undermine its previously unquestioned status as the language of learning." Originally, England did not follow the Continental Reformation; King Henry VIII was a conservative who actually wrote a book against Luther in 1521. However, he wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Arag\ n, and due to intense political pressure, the Church was unable to grant this request. The result was that in 1534 England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, King Henry became the pope of his own dominions, and the Christian church in England underwent great change.

One of the most significant developments of the English Reformation was the movement from Latin to the vernacular in the liturgy and scriptures. Shortly after England’s break with Rome the Book of the Common Prayer and administration of the Sacramentes, and other Rites and Ceremonies after the Use of the Churche of England (Book of Common Prayer) was developed in 1549 to unite the country in a single method of worship. As Crystal notes, the Book of Common Prayer is the source of much of the vernacular idiom of English prayer. Since the Church of England was no longer bound by the statutes of Rome, the ruling of the Council of Trent in 1562 which decided to outlaw vernacular bibles and liturgies was no longer applicable. Accordingly, the Church of England developed its own vernacular translation of the Bible, a work which as come to be known as the King James Bible.

The King James Bible offers a unique glimpse into the linguistic priorities of the day. It was not translated recklessly, but rather great care and forethought was involved in its production. While previously Latin was often used to bestow greater dignity to a text, the committee which oversaw the production of the King James Bible deliberately chose a conservative, dignified style of English to confer an appropriate level of deference and nobility. Despite its conservatism, the committee felt it was important to preserve the subtle nuances of speech and did so by consciously permitting variations in translation to stand. Also, archaisms in word order, the use of the archaic second person plural pronouns ye and you, and the affix –(e)th for the third person singular of present tense verbs were preserved, conferring a sense of authority through age to the text. However, while the King James Bible offered the sense of a long liturgical history through its conservative language, its use for the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 indicates that it was perhaps not as archaic as it seems. Nevalainen quotes the following passage concerning the revision of the Book of Common Prayer: "That most of the alterations were made…for the more proper expressing of some words or phrases of antient vsage, in terms more suteable to the language of the present times." While the distance in time does not seem great from 1549 to 1662, Nevalainen notes, that Early Modern Period represents a time of great transition in spelling and semantics in English.

Beginning in the Renaissance and continuing into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English language experience a huge influx of borrowed words. Most of these borrowed words came from Latin and were needed to speak about theology, science, and law in English. The result was a huge increase of English vocabulary and Nevalainen writes that the period from the late sixteenth to mid-seventeeth century was the "period of the fastest vocabulary growth in the history of English in proportion to the vocabulary size of the time." This saturation of English with foreign words not only attracted criticism – purists referred to excessive Latin borrowings as "inkhorn" terms and were much opposed to their use – but also resulted in the need for English-English dictionaries to explain the new terms that had entered the lexicon. It was not until Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 that the English language was examined meticulously. While other dictionaries had appeared previously to explicate the "hard words," Johnson’s Dictionary "set a model for posterity and form."

Latin was the main source of borrowed words in Early Modern English, and the influx increased as the vernacular began to be used more extensively in academic and scientific circles. Burke suggests that another result of the increase the vernacular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the rise of the female reading public. By the eighteenth century the position of the vernacular English as the language of academia, religion, and law was complete. In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica appeared in Latin in order to reach the broadest audience; in 1704 his Opticks; or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections, and colours of light was published in English marking the period in which significant scholarly work began to appear in the vernacular.

While this has been a very brief survey of the linguistic history of Latin in English in the ecclesiastical and academic realms, it is useful to be aware that Latin also profound influence in England in the form of its art and literature. Authors like Edmund Spenser were influenced by Latin literature, and his Fairy Queen bears his impressions of works like Virgil’s Aeneid. Latin has affected English linguistic culture perhaps more than any other "Other" language.

Suggested Reading:

Philip Ayres, Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth Century England. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Terttu Nevalainen, "Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics," In Roger Lass, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Marco Pustianaz, "Latin as a sign of Babel in early Tudor literature." In English Literature and the Other Languages. Ton Hoenselaars and Marius Buning, eds. (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999).

Edward F. Rice Jr., Foundations of Early Modern Europe 1460-1559. 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).

Howard D. Weinbrot, "Johnson, Jacobitism, and the Historiography of Nostalgia," The Age of Johnson 7 (1996) 163-211.


Works Cited:

Burke, Peter "Heu domine, adsunt Turcae: A Sketch for a Social History of Post medieval Latin." In Language, Self, and Society: A Social History of Language" Peter Burke and Roy Porter, eds. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991. 23-50

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lapidge, Michael. "The Anglo-Latin Background." In A New Critical History of Old English Literature. Stanly B. Greenfield and David G. Calder, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

McArthur, Tom ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language .Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language, 2nd ed. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1996.

Nevalainen, Terttu. "Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics," In Roger Lass, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Edward F. Rice Jr., Foundations of Early Modern Europe 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.