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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

§ 4. Conservation and reform

The result of these conflicting tendencies was twofold. The conservatism of the purists proved a useful drag upon the energies of the reformers; it tended to preserve from obsolescence the native element in the language, and was a wholesome reminder of the necessity for moving slowly in a period of rapid change and hot enthusiasm. The efforts of the innovators, on the other hand, made great things possible. The language under their treatment became more supple, more ornate and more responsive to new ideas and emotions; but this was only after a certain amount of licence had been frowned out of existence.

The conservative tendency is revealed, not only in a negative way, by the general discountenancing of rash innovation, but, also, by positive efforts made “to restore such good and natural English words as had been long time out of use and almost clean disherited.” Obsolescent words, no doubt, persisted in the spoken language, for Ascham, who held “that good writing involved the speech of the comon people,” makes use of forms like “stoure” (fight) and “freke” (man), while, in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, which appealed to provincial and cultured taste alike, are to be found words like “spill” (destroy), “dere” (injure), “lin” (cease), “spur” (ask), “lese” (lose) and “middle-earth” (world). Then, again, works written under the influence of earlier poetic tradition might, also, contain a certain amount of the archaic: thus, Wyatt and Surrey have forms like “eyen” and “durre” (door), while Gascoigne, who writes under the influence of Piers the Plowman, uses “sakeless” (innocent), “fearli” (wonder) and “grete” (cry). Very frequently, too, there was deliberate archaising. Sir John Cheke, in his unfinished translation of the New Testament, took many liberties not always justifiable; for “publican” he writes “toller”; for “crucify,” “cross”; for “centurion,” “hundreder”; and, for “lunatic,” “moond.” In the translations of Phaer, Twyne, Golding and North, further archaisms appear; while Stanyhurst, who was a man of many devices, has old forms like “sib,” “gadling,” “quernstone” and “agryse.”

In some cases, a definite literary motive might occasion the use of these forms. Spenser, for instance, in his Shepheards Calender makes a most liberal use of the language of Lancashire peasants as well as of obsolete forms. To the former class, probably, belong such northern forms as “wae” (woe), “gate” (goat), “sike” (such), “mickle” and “kirke,” and they effectively suggest “the rusticall rudenesse of shepheards.” In his Faerie Queene, while he uses Chaucerisms like “gan tel,” “areed” and “lustyhed,” to suggest a medieval tone in keeping with his subject, he also finds such forms as “ycled,” “passen” and “wa-wes” of great assistance, not only in completing the requisite number of syllables in the line, but, also, in affording riming variants. And, again, in the drama, dialectal forms were frequently employed to obtain greater verisimilitude. The west country speech was the conventional form of utterance for rusticity on the stage; whence the forms “chad,” “ichotte,” “vilthy,” “zembletee” (semblance), in Ralph Roister Doister, with which may be compared Edgar’s diction in King Lear.

But the use of obsolescent and dialectal forms added nothing to the permanent literary resources. It was an artificial restoration of words, honourable enough in the past, but which the language had naturally discarded; for words rapidly become obsolete in a period of swiftly advancing culture. Where such words appear, they add a picturesqueness to Elizabethan diction, but it was not until the close of the eighteenth century that the full capabilities of words racy of the soil became properly appreciated, when dialect added new effects to English expression. For the rest, the ancient words continued to linger in their rustic obscurity, regardless of the attention or neglect of literary men. That they were already fast becoming unfamiliar in polite circles would appear from the fact that a glossary of obscure words was appended to Speght’s edition of Chaucer (1602), a convenience which had not been deemed necessary in the editions of 1542 and 1561.

The case, however, was different when words, instead of being drawn from a dead past, were taken from a living present, as elements contributed to the language by the changing thoughts and movements of the time. English, in the nineteenth century, assimilated the respective vocabularies of German metaphysics, the pictorial art and science; and, in the same way, the language of the sixteenth century was assimilating the phraseology of renascence learning and reformation zeal, as well as the expressions of travel and adventure. And, although English, owing to its plastic state, accepted, for the time being, more of these elements than it was destined to retain, the ultimate result was linguistic expansion, and a considerable step was thus taken by the language towards its modern form.