Early modern English vocabulary: Latin & layers


Principal source for Latin:


Nevalainen, Terttu. “Lexis and semantics.” Volume III 1476-1776,

ed. Roger Lass. The Cambridge history of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 1999.


Of all periods in English, EmodE demonstrates the fastest growth in vocabulary

§       objective need to express new ideas (or ideas new to English)

o      English competing with Latin in fields like medicine (uterus, testicle) or law (a mensa et thoro ‘judicial separation’) and various highly specific discourses now handled by English (species: characteristic visible form / appearance of things in e.g. logic, theology, mathematics, zoology...)

o      new discoveries and inventions, new words

§       science

§       travel/colonization

·       but of course you can use old words too: switch, robin

§       subjective need to enrich the potential of the vernacular

o      do we really need squalid and squalor ‘dry, rough, dirty’ -> ‘dingy or miserable in any way’?

§       “prestige words used by the educated to describe the less fortunate”?!

o      people were conscious of lower status of English relative to Latin

§       OED is biased towards C16th rather than 18th texts, but the growth is still real


Source of new words

§       unusually, loanwords more influential than wordformation

o      by C18th it’s back to wordformation

§       from about the 1520s to about 1670, about 40-50% of the loanwords were from Latin

o      ‘specialist’

o      some ‘general’


Latin wasn’t a dead language (read Andrea DG’s article)

§       international language of education and scholarship


As well as ‘functional’ Latin was prestigious (and to some pretentious)

§       Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric (1553) complains that “some seke so farre for outlandishe English, that they forget altogether their mothers langage”

o      epitomizes such people with a man from Lincolnshire (=boonies) writing to a man in the Lord Chancellor’s service begging a favour

o      and epitomizes their language with

§       words like fatigate, revolute

§       words like invigilate, contemplate, verbosity

§       in Ben Jonson’s play The Poetaster a character is purged (literally) of his latinate words

Hor. A bason, a bason, quickly; our physic works. Faint not, man

Cris. O --- retrogradereciprocalincubus ...

..Hor: ... inflate, turgidous, and ventosity are come up.

Tib. O terrible windy words. ...


Is it possible to get an impression of the impact of latinate loanwords at this period? The OED online has an ‘advanced search’ function

§       overhead: first cited date = 1600 + language names = Latin

§       overhead: first cited date = 1626 + author = Bacon



§       Bacon did ?introduce some non-latinate words

o      dwarf as a verb

o      dragon-fly as a noun

§       most words in the ‘1600/Latin’ list look pretty unfamiliar to us now!

§       some of the less unfamiliar words must have competed unsuccessfully with related forms (defining them!), e.g.

o      anglicized apparate ‘apparatus’

o      benefic ‘beneficient’

o      annexion ‘annexation’

o      aversation ‘aversion’


Much redundancy (or redundancy in EmodE lexis

§       there are different ways of adapting or adopting Latin forms

§       and the results don’t show consistency

o      we’ve kept Latin apparatus rather than the anglicized apparate (but have kept both state and status)

o      we’ve kept annexation but rejected aversation


More examples (Romance derivations) ...

§       heritable, haereditary, heriditable, hereditarious

§       venereal, venerial (when does a different spelling = different word?), venereous, venerious, venerous, veneral


And of course many of these words weren’t truly ‘integrated’. How can one tell?

§       how many exx in the OED? (or MED)

§       is it glossed? (e.g  1646  Insects that have antennæ, or long hornes to feele out their way, as Butter-flies and Locusts.)

§       is it italicized? antennae

§       does its form become anglicized?

o      e.g. aesteem -> esteem, heros -> hero, antennae -> antennas

§       does it move from specialist texts to more general ones?

o      insect antennae, electronic antennas?

§       or get used figuratively?

o      bad 19th poem:   1855 HOLMES Poems 214 Go to yon tower, where busy science plies Her vast antennæ, feeling thro' the skies.

o      but some technical terms are always going to stay technical


Let’s look at loanwords that have integrated


Importation of Latin medical terminology

§       put overhead: OED entry for testicle, uterus

o      testicle:

§       notice that the first two contexts are translations

§       notice that early sources ‘gloss’ it with what we infer is the more familiar native stones:

·       1634: “Testicles or Stones, and especially stones of fatte Cockes”

·       1646: “bites off his testicles or stones”

o      uterus:

§       notice that plural form isn’t ‘naturalized’ (||)

§       notice that on its first appearance the word is ‘marked’

·       italics, capitals

·       “properly”: implies other, less correct terms

§       notice its contexts: anatomy, encyclopedias


Can you ascertain ‘native’ vs ‘learned’ layers in EmodE?

o      if a learned word is ‘marked’ (capitalized, italicized) or ‘glossed’ (defined)

o      early dictionaries were dictionaries of ‘hard’ words (the sorts of headwords we see from the 1600/Latin/OED search!)

o      the words that define those words would be ‘familiar’

o      Ian Lancashire’s LEME is a database of those dictionaries and contemporary texts (e.g. medical books)

o      if you search for ‘womb’ in the monolingual dictionaries, the headwords it helps to define include: filme, matrix, mother (a disease called), secondine, umbilical vein, vterine

§       these are from Blount’s 1656 Glossographia

o      if you search for yard (?!) you get headwords like prepuce, priapism, suture


Effects in PDE of learned medical terms (handout: The language of doctor and patient)

§       considerable social gulf between those who know the technical terms and those who don’t

o      micturate vs do a number one

o      Canadian Oxford Dictionary has a long definition for womb, but defines uterus as ‘the womb’

§       lack of morphological transparency within semantic fields

o      coronary thrombosis = heart attack

§       technical terms more ‘clinical’? (when would a layperson use uterus vs womb?)

§       native terms more ‘emotional’?

o      womb: “the organ in the body of a woman or female mammal in which offspring are carried, protected, and nourished before birth; the uterus”

§       native terms more ‘rude’: balls, etc.

§       but words from either layer can be used euphemistically if they’re not semantically transparent

o      learned terms: costive, alopecia, menopause

o      idiomatic native expressions: do a number, the change of life


Loanwords have “been an important factor in the stylistic versatility of the modern language” (Crystal 124)

o      rise, mount, ascend

o      ask, question, interrogate

o      Are “the later [borrowed] forms more formal, careful, bookish, or polite”?



The layered literary lexicon



Adamson, Sylvia. “Literary language.” Volume III 1476-1776, ed. Roger

Lass. The Cambridge history of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 1999.

Adamson, Sylvia. “The grand style.” Reading Shakespeare’s dramatic

language: a guide. Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.



The latinate vocabulary and “the grand style”


Technical genres

§       new (latinate) words often really needed (uterus, etc.)


Literary genres

§       new (latinate) words often synonymous with old words

o      “The motive for borrowing in this case is purely stylistic”

o      look at how latinate vocabulary functions in “the grand style”




the simple style for proving


the middle style for pleasing


the vehement style for persuading

the great or mightie kinde, when we vse great wordes, or vehement figures




Milton, Paradise Lost:


What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support.    



Native words like dark or low

§       “typically learned early”

§       “learned through speech”

§       “context of physical experience”

o      “Hence no one needs to be told the meaning of light or strong: they consult their memories of all the experiences with which the word is connected”

o      “associated with private and intimate discourse”

o      “their semantic range is characteristically experiential: they encode perceptions, emotions, evaluations”


Latinate words like illumine (14th) or support (14th)

§       “learned late”

§       “learned through education”

§       “interpreted by reference to explicit definition”

§       “associated not only with a formal public style but also with a range of meaning that is primarily abstract and ideational”


We need both

§       “Any discourse aiming to encompass both kinds of meaning is likely to incorporate both kinds of word”

§       “Perhaps because the grand style was so clearly defined in functional terms .. and because its function was so clearly understood to be persuasion or moving, most renaissance writers ground the magniloquent latinate in the homely Saxon.”


C16th cultural obsession with ‘copiousness’ of language

§       not just for its own sake but as a persuasive tool

§       Erasmus, De copia: hundreds of ways of saying “Your letters have delighted me very much”

o      Thy Letter hath affected me with a singular Pleasure

o      I am affected with an incredible Pleasure by thy Letter.

o      Thy letter was no small Joy

o      Thy writings have been sweeter than either Ambrosia or Nectar. (etc.)

§       I’m getting this from an c18th English translation!



What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support.     (Milton, Paradise Lost)


Illumine, support

§       describe and epitomize “the epic qualities Milton desires”

Dark, low

§       their negative counterparts”



Shakespeare (Hamlet urging Horatio not to commit suicide):


Absent thee from felicitie a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine.


Absent, felicity

§       words “used to convey an intellectual apprehension of a state of stoical endurance, which they simultaneously dignify by their own stylistic formality

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine:

§       “turns to the physical reality of living on and expresses it in predominantly Saxon vocabulary” (pain isn’t native, but is old and monosyllabic!)



(How) can you distinguish seriousness from pomposity or bombast?


Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida “persuades his despondent allies to continue the war against Troy, arguing that the setbacks in their seven-year campaign should be regarded as (1) knots in a piece of wood, or (2) trials of stamina imposed by the gods:”


                                      Checks and disasters

Grow in the veins of actions highest reared,

As (1) knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,

Infects the sound pine, and diverts his grain

Tortive and errant from his course of growth ...


                             Why then, you princes,

Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works,

And think them shames which are indeed naught else

But (2) the protractive trials of great Jove

To find persistive constancy in men?


This is an insistently latinate passage


(1) Synonymia:

§       glosses one Latinate hard word not with a native word but with another latinate word: tortive and errant


(2) Paradiastole (restatement in other terms)

§       restates shames in increasingly obscurer terms: protractive trials, persistive constancy


Effect of all this latinity characterizes the speaker as a

§       “pompous nonentity, divorced from the rude realities of military stalemate”?

§       “crafty politician, who uses rhetoric for purposes of deceit, disguising unpalatable facts so as to cheer the troops and prolong a shameful war”?