Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 3. Growing importance of the vernacular

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 3. Growing importance of the vernacular

We pass now to the sixteenth century and there we see the vernacular duly established as the literary medium, so that the main interest lies in tracing the subsequent development of the language of Caxton and in noting how it became a fit vehicle for some of our greatest literature. Now, for the first time, we see scholars concerned for its welfare, and attempting to improve its powers of expression. We also see the renascence movement and general national activities increasing its vocabulary to an enormous extent. We see its grammatical structure and its syntax being slowly modified; and, while there are visible certain approaches to modern expression, we also notice certain characteristics which give to Elizabethan English something of its peculiar charm.

When Caxton died in 1491, he had fixed, in the rough, the character of modern English. The works subsequently issued from the printing press were to give to the vernacular a definite standing, and to suggest its adoption as the literary medium, with a force denied to rarely handled manuscripts. But there still remained many obstacles to be overcome, before the capabilities of English were completely recognised. It had never yet been the object of serious study. The grammar schools founded in the sixteenth and previous centuries existed mainly for the teaching of Latin; grammar meant Latin grammar, and it became a generic term only at the close of the Elizabethan age. Moreover, the English-Latin dictionaries which had appeared at intervals since 1440, though they afforded valuable collections of English words, were primarily designed to help Latin scholars; and so it is not strange to find that, in the first half of the sixteenth century, the idea of Latin as the language of scholarship and the necessary medium for attaining literary longevity was still a deeply-seated notion. Thus, we find bishop Gardiner advising that religious works should take either Greek or Latin form, because those languages were well fixed, whereas “English had not continued in one form of understanding for 200 years.” And, again, Sir Thomas Hoby, though himself a translator, writes, in 1561, that “oure learned menne for the most part, holde opinion that to have the sciences in the mother tunge, hurteth memorie and hindreth learning.” The vernacular, too, was constantly being made the subject of apology. Many still felt with Ascham, that to have written in a tongue other than English would have been more honest for their names; and the monotony of lament for the “vile terms” of English, which had become almost conventional since the days of Chaucer, was, to some extent, maintained.

The second half of the century, however, witnessed a change of attitude. Literary criticism began with an enquiry into language, the outward and visible sign of literature; scholars began to consider what was correct in the pronunciation and spelling of English, and to set themselves to the task of improving its powers of expression.

With the appearance of Toxophilus (1545), the prejudice in favour of Latin may be said to have begun to wane. Though journals of the guilds and important records and accounts were still couched in Latin, there was an occasional championing of the vernacular even in connection with recondite subjects. Elyot had already protested: “If physicians be angry that I have written physicke in English, let them remember that the Grekes wrote in Greke, the Romains in Latin,” and the vernacular slowly asserted itself in religious and secular works, and even in those which issued from the citadels of science. A sort of compromise between the old and new traditions was visible when More’s Utopia was translated into English in 1561, and when Lawrence Humphrey, having written his Optimates (1560) in Latin, three years later turned it into English. And, though Bacon was yet to fear that modern languages would “play the bankrupt with books,” his timidity was far from being shared by the bulk of his contemporaries.

The causes of this change were, no doubt, complex; but one great driving force must have been the growing sense of nationalism, the new-born temper, which rejoiced in everything English. Then, again, the desire to disseminate renascence learning, and to open up easy avenues to the classical stores, induced scholars to make a further use of their mother tongue. The reformation movement, in itself an assertion of Teutonism against Latinism, led to numerous English versions of the Bible; and, when the English prayer-book had also accustomed the nation to daily reading of their mother tongue, English, instead of Latin, had become the language of religion. Moreover, the work inaugurated by Caxton was duly organised when the Stationers’ company was formed in 1557, and growing facilities for the book industry in England ensured an increase in the appearance of English works.

With this gradual recognition of the literary claims of the vernacular, scholars began to perceive the urgency of fitting it for its new tasks. The situation was paralleled across the Channel, where Ronsard and La Pléiade were engaged upon the improvement of their mother tongue; and, at a still earlier date, Bembo, the foster-father of Italian, had undertaken a similar work in Italy. In Italy, the end had been obtained by a dictatorship; in France, the reformers aimed at devising rules; but in England, the method adopted was the characteristic one of compromise. A middle way was chosen between two conflicting tendencies, one of which, being conservative, aimed at retaining the language in its purity and severity, while the other made for innovation, for the strengthening of the native growth with foreign material. These opposing tendencies represented an inevitable stage in linguistic development. Innovations had been made continuously since the time of the Romans, and the work of sixteenth century innovators, Latinists for the most part, was simply a continuation of this practice. But the opposite tendency, that of the purists, was now felt for the first time; conservatism was generated only when time had brought about a due consciousness of the past and a pride in the vernacular as a national possession.

The purists were notably Cheke, Ascham and Wilson, though their sympathies were shared by many others. Cheke, as a lover of “old denisened words,” expressed himself in unequivocal terms. “Our own tung,” he writes, “should be written clean and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borrowing of other tunges; wherein, if we take not heed by tym, ever borrowing and never payeng, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.” Ascham, too, adopted the same attitude, and Wilson decried all “overflouryshing wyth superfluous speach.” And this love of the vernacular and confidence in its resources was present with others. Mulcaster honoured Latin but worshipped English; Sidney maintained that for “uttering sweetly and properly the conceits of the mind … [English] hath it equally with any other tongue in the world,” and similar sentiments were uttered by Golding and Pettie, while, before the end of the century, Carew’s Epistle on the Excellency of the English Tongue had appeared. Under certain conditions, religious zeal might also account for a purist attitude, as when Fulke, in his attack of 1583 upon the Rheims translation of the Bible, complains of the number of Latin words used in that version, where they occur “of purpose to darken the sense … [and that] it may be kept [by the Papists] from being understood.”

But there were not a few who held that the vernacular needed improvement if it was to respond to the demands which were obviously ahead. To refuse innovation was to neglect the very means by which it had prospered in the past; and it was felt that the jealous exclusiveness of the extreme purists threatened to blunt all literary expression and would turn the vernacular into a clumsy instrument. Many of those whose instincts were conservative were also alive to the necessity for a certain amount of innovation. Even Cheke made a proviso to the effect that, “borrowing, if it needs must be, should be done with bashfulness,” and both Pettie and Wilson definitely proposed to improve their language by Latin borrowings. “It is the way,” remarked the former, “that all tongues have taken to enrich themselves.” Gascoigne, though disliking strange words in general, was bound to admit that, at times, they might “draw attentive reading”; while Nashe, complaining of the way in which English swarmed with “the single money of monosyllables,” proposed to make “a royaler show,” by exchanging his “small English … four into one … according to the Greek, French, Spanish and Italian.” Other reasons were elsewhere advanced to justify innovation; but what is of more importance is that, in actual practice, the main body of writers were fully in sympathy with the aims of the movement.