Loanwords in Early / Modern English (cf. Origins ch. 12)


Changing status and functions of English


Middle English

-prestige of French relative to English

          -all English dialects more or less equally unstatusful

-influx of loanwords esp in certain registers (e.g. medicine, religion)


Early Modern English

-‘Selection of variety of English to serve as a standard’: by the late 14th century it’s clear that a prestige variety of English was emerging

-based in south, specifically London (economic & political reasons rather than linguistic ones)

-mixture: verbal –s (she loves), pronominal they from north


          -artificial Chancery language?


English taking over functions of Latin, French, e.g.:



-Henry 5, his secretariat; then the Chancery


If you need an analogy for the status of early modern English, think of Scots English or Jamaican Creole now

          -unproblematic for literature

          -more problematic for other genres: e.g. the Christian bible

          -and in the educational realm


English had to be able to function in these areas

          -clear and precise grammar

-precise vocabulary: much of it Latin, now borrowed directly and not just in field of religion


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

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

o      new discoveries and new inventions

§       travel/colonization

§       science

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

o      English replacing French and 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...)


§       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


New functions need new words

§       unusually, in EModE, loanwords most influential

o      by C18th it’s back to wordformation

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

o      some technical (e.g. virus)

o      some more stylistic (e.g. squalid)


English was relatively receptive to Latin loanwords because it had already received many in ME (directly or via French)

§       sometimes hard to tell: both the French and the English rendered Latin nouns in –atio as –ation

o      so, I have to look it up to discover that affirmation was borrowed in the 16th from French


Many words (especially nouns) adopted (i.e. no morphological change) – abbreviation in OED is “a.”

o       automaton

§        exterior

§        climax

§        medium

§         radius

o       we even adopt their plurals: media, radii

o      inflexional morphemes rarer than derivational ones, though

o      and ‘productive’ only with other learned words (e.g. hippopotamus)


Others adapted (removing or altering inflections) = OED “ad.”

o      automate an early adaptation (<Fr, C17th) of Lat. automaton

§        conjectural(is)

§        conspicuus -> conspicuous

§       veritas -> verity


Along with new words, English borrowed new affixes

o      ‘learned plural’: if cactus/cacti therefore octopus/octopi?

§       -ate originally the past participle inflexion: creare, creatus ‘was created’

o        adjectival use of past participle: “the illuminate doctor”

o      verbal use of past participle: e.g. separate, illuminate

§       eventually –ate added to bases that weren’t verbs,

o      e.g. paginate (Latin pagina)

§       but there is a med. Latin paginare

o      e.g. scientific terms, e.g. chlorinate, dehydrate

§       or back-formed from nouns in –ation (cf. create, creation)

o      donate, orate, automate from existing nouns in –ation?

§       however, there are Latin verbs donare and orare

·       origins not always certain


 Romance and native affixes can compete (c16th-17th exx)

o      e.g. frequency and frequentness

o      e.g. immaturity and immatureness

o      e.g. immediacy and immediateness

o      the productivity of native –ness with a Latin base is less exciting than a Latin affix would be with a less learned base

§       e.g. Shakespeare’s discandy in Antony and Cleopatra


And along with new affixes, a new graph or two (or at least <ae> and <oe>, the Latin spelling of Greek <oi>)

o       lost in aesteem, aedify; economics

o      recessive in mediaeval and encyclopaedia (a test of character!) and perhaps even archaeology; diarrhoea

o      still around in amoeba

o      more likely to be kept in proper names: Aeneas, Oedipus




Different ways of adapting different words

·       venereal, venereal, veneral

·       venereous, venerious, venerous


Same word could be borrowed from French (ME, typically), then from Latin (EModE)

·       dette, debt (same word etymologically respelled)**

·       round, rotund (different words)

·       poor, pauper

·       aim, esteem, estimate

o      sometimes French sound changes really change the form of the word!


You could borrow different parts of the same Latin verb: the infinitive and the past participle were quite different (cf English buy and bought or write and written)

§       For Latin aestimare ‘to appraise monetary value’, ‘to weigh moral worth’

§       aestimare (infinitive) -> esteem

§       aestimatus (past participle) -> estimate


Other examples of variation between infinitive and past participle

§       convincere, convictum -> convince, convict

§       currere, cursum -> current, currency; precursor, cursory

o      Notice that if both forms have survived, they’ve differentiated semantically


Semantic differentiation:

§       aim is from Old French esmer (from Latin aestimare!)

o      aim had entered ME with all the Latin meanings in the 1300s

§        ‘esteem’: “Thou eymest the son of man”

§        ‘estimate’, ‘calculate’: “no mon mi3t ayme þe noumber

§       but what survived was the (also 14th) meaning that had narrowed via ‘calculate’ to mean  “to calculate one’s course with a view to arriving at a point”, “to calculate the direction of anything about to be launched”


Examples of now obsolete forms

§       from Chaucer

§       from the infinitive: calcule, confeder, dissimule, encorpore

§       from the past participle: determinate, exaltate, preparate

o      Romance borrowings in ME paved way for EModE

§       from Milton

o       “what is dark in me illumine

§       had been in the language since the 14th; illuminate is later


How can you tell if a loanword has been integrated?

§       many exx in the OED? (or MED)

o      OED marks ‘non-naturalized words’ with “||”

§       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 (spelling, grammar)?

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.

…but some technical terms are always going to stay technical




Authority, pretentiousness

§        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. ...


Copiousness, stylistic versatility

o      Erasmus, De copia (1512): “Your letter hath delighted me very much”, “Thy letter hath affected me with a singular pleasure,” “I am affected with an incredible pleasure by thy Letter,” &c

o      in PDE: 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”?


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



**More than you want to know: Latinate respelling in EModE of French loanwords in ME


If a Latin word had been borrowed via French in ME, in EmodE sometimes it was etymologically respelled

o      e.g. Latin adventura (future participle ‘that which is about to happen’) -> (OF ->) ME aventure -> (Lat->) adventure

o      e.g. Latin perfectum -> (OF->) ME parfit -> (Lat-> EmodE perfect

o      e.g. Latin debitum -> (OF->) ME dette -> (Lat->) EModE debt

o      might not affect pronunciation


Sometimes ‘etymological’ spelling is wrong!

o      Latin scindere ‘to cut’ assumed to be the ancestor of

o      scythe (no: OE síð)

o      scissors (no: ME < Ofr cisoirs, related to chisel)

o      PDE island is from OE ea-land, which became ME i-land and thus got wrongly associated with French ile (from Latin insula). Once isle got an etymological and silent <s> so did island...

o      aisle (OFr ele < Latin ala ‘wing’) also got associated with isle and acquired an unetymological <s> (thanks, AZ)