Tag Archives: history of the language

Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique

I will be teaching the History of the English Language this spring (o frabjous day!), and have been updating the timelines (one for Indo-European and archaic languages, a second for English) that I’ve written to use in the classroom. Here, and in the next post, are two new entries.

Thomas Wilson’s 1553 text has become a classic argument against the 16th-century trend of amplifying the English lexicon with Englished versions of Latin and Greek words–so called “inkhorn terms.” The relevant section of his book begins here. As with the slightly later trend to regularize English spelling (see the entries under Mulcaster and Bullokar), the key reason for this is anxiety about the influence of the ancient, elite models of Greek and Latin. Writers wanted to transform English–now, after the reformation, the official language of the state and church–into a language worthy enough to rival the literacy that they represented.

Scholars who argued for borrowing (including Thomas Elyot and George Pettie) and those who argued against it (also including John Cheke) all desired to elevate the literary status of English. The differences lie in method. Those who argued for borrowing saw Latin and Greek as models that might help English to advance. Those against inkhorn terms argued that “our tung should be written clene and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges,” as Cheke said (qtd. on Crystal 61). One side venerated the classics; the other the “purity” of their own vernacular. Both arguments beg for modern analyses of their respective educational ideologies.

Shakespeare used many inkhorn terms unselfconsciously, including many that don’t survive: note “exsufflicate” (Othello 3.3.186), or two words in the line this my hand will rather / the multitudinous seas incarnadine (Macbeth 2.2.59-60). He also mocked pretension in characters such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing who try and fail to speak in elevated terms: “Marry, sir, I would have some confidence [conference] with you that decerns [concerns] you nearly” (3.5.2-3); “Comparisons are odorous” (3.5.14); “Is our whole dissembly appeared?” (4.2.1). Other examples of this mockery include his Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost, Ben Jonson’s character Crispinus in his 1601 Poetaster (in 5.3, he vomits up a number of words into a basin), and the famous Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.

While many of these coinages are easy to laugh at (splendidious? adnichilate? temulent?–look up that one), many of these terms survive, indicating that they filled some kind of lexical void. Crystal gives good list on CEEL 60 that includes adapt, immaturity, and transcribe, all from Latin roots. The word vernacular itself, that first appears around 1600, is an inkhorn term. Taken from the Latin verna, meaning a “home-born” (as opposed to an imported) slave, its first use refers to the dialect of a specific place. A contemporary word that did not survive is vernile, similar to servile, that did endure. The word crystallizes well the elitism of trans-European Latin learning as opposed to local mother tongues.

On inkhorn terms and borrowing in general, as well as Wilson, see: Bailey 59, 271-74; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 187-90; Baugh & Cable 214-22 (including long selections from texts); Paula Blank, “The Babel of Renaissance English,” esp. 222-30, in Mugglestone; Millward & Hayes 225-27; Crystal, CEEL 60-61 (with brief quotations); Dieter Katovsky, “Vocabulary,” esp. 256-65, in Hogg & Denison; Lerer ch. 10; Susan Doran and Jonathan Woolfson, “Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581),” DNB.

For a full edition of the key part of Wilson’s text–including his full quotation from an exemplarily exsufflicate letter–see David Burnley, A History of the English Language: A Sourcebook, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson Longman, 2000): 216-21 (text 25). Text 31 (252-59) presents an edition of Love’s Labours Lost 5.1, featuring Holofernes.

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Filed under Early Modern, Lang & Lit

HEL Timeline

HEL timeline

click away!

I’ve added, in the blogroll to the right, a link to a pet project of mine, a timeline of the history of the language. I think that it has now moved out of its beta stages into something presentable enough for others to use. Two other timelines are associated with it: one about Indo-European linguistic development, and one for the first part of the British Literature survey. It’s the HEL timeline, however, that more than the others seems to present an constant distraction; I find myself constantly making tweaks and additions.

I’ve posted before about the frustrations I’ve had with textbooks for this course. This will not replace a textbook, however; it’s meant instead to present a graphic indication of varieties of linguistic development, to provide glimpses of work that can be pursued further (I provide references and links for this), and to illustrate the range of topics that the study of HEL can touch. Hopefully even experienced teachers can find a few gems in here.

Double-click on either of the bands, or drag them, to shift to the past or future, and click away on the links. To write this, I started with Brian Croxall’s tutorials about the Simile widgets, open-source software code that started at MIT and which is now kept by Google.

Please comment to discuss any possible additions or alterations that might help. I have to-do lists about these projects, always, but more suggestions would be very welcome!

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Filed under In Other Words

Unlearning an Accent

The New York accent to me is quintessentially American; it sounds to me like pastrami on rye bread, bagels, taxicabs, city sidewalks, book stores, baseball parks, thin-crust pizza, lines at the theater, and sidewalk stalls selling cheap jewelry and not-Kate-Spade handbags. I love just to listen to it. But, apparently, “’A New York accent makes you sound ignorant,’ said Lynn Singer, a speech therapist who works with Miss LoGiudice. ‘People listen to the accent, but not to what you’re saying.’”

Ah. Well that’s a shame. It’s not the way that I objectify the dialect, but on the other hand I would also argue that any kind of objectification tries to dismiss any desire the object might have to shift or re-constitute its identity–even if the objectification is apparently flattering (“Oh, but your long blonde hair was so beautiful!”). I’m not sure I like the result of all this, that the signs of a unique geographical and social identity must be edited out to allow for social or cultural movement. But then again, perhaps that’s easy for me to say. With a (largely) vanilla northeast U.S. accent, my speech usually doesn’t stand out.

It’s not just a desire to move out of the neighborhoods that softens the accent, the article notes, but also physical and cultural movement in:

That type of stereotypical accent, which survives mostly in black-and-white movies and television reruns, has been diluted by the influx of what linguists describe as Standard American English speakers from across the country, along with a decline in the city’s white working-class population, whose members tended to have some of the thickest accents.

The article includes a link to a phrase book from a 1938 city almanac (“Wahgoozidoo? Cynical dejection”). Since then, neighborhoods have become more porous and jobs are neither local or plentiful, as blue collar jobs once were. Globalization likes our dialects homogenized, like our cheese.

However nostalgic this is, though, dialects must be differentiating themselves today in media-saturated First World countries; language always will attempt to. Perhaps professional and technological dialects will become more prominent than geographical identities?

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Filed under Lang & Lit