Latin Usage in Early Modern English

shakespeareTowards the end of the 14th. Century, English had recently been renewed by the fall of the French language as the official tongue spoken by the ruling class and in court in England (although French was till the official language in court until 1731) and there was a surge of many inkhorn terms, that were employed by scholars and contemporary writers (one of the best and most popular examples of this trend was probably William Shakespeare). Inkhorn terms were loan words from foreign languages, especially Greek and Latin. Latin, at the time, was considered a prestige tongue; a language used in academic contexts.

The aim of this essay is to analyze, from a historical perspective, the controversial incidence of Latin in the English Renaissance period and how Latin loanwords found their way into Early Modern English; taking into account the resistance that supporters of this trend encountered from other scholars and the language anxiety that characterized the era.

Latin Loanwords Samples

circumspect; circumvent; circumstance; delude; concave; complicate; copiousness; dexterous; clavicle; clemency; corpus; dual; influx; preposition; anxious; erudite.

The words aforementioned have entered the English language during the period of transition between Late Middle English and Early Modern English. It is also noteworthy to indicate that, in fact, most of the Latin-rooted loanwords we know and use today, and which did not enter English through French or through different branches of the natural sciences during the Middle English period, did so during the Early Modern English. Some of them, however, have fallen into disuse and are today considered obsolete.

Let us be reminded that our language, still today, bears the stigma of the period during which the inkhorn controversy was still afloat and, however exquisite and elegant these Latin loanwords may seem, if one were to indulge copiously in their utilization, it is at one’s own risk of being labeled a turgidous writer or orator.