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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

§ 5. Classical influence

The influence of the renascence is seen in the classical importations with which the language became inundated—an influence parallel to that which induced scholars to turn to the classics for assistance in remodelling and reforming their literary art. Just as attempts were made to introduce classical “decorum” into the native drama, to substitute classical prosody for native forms, so free use was made of classical diction in the attempt to obtain increased power of literary expression. The beginning of this influence is seen in the translations, where numerous words of the originals were, perforce, retained; then, again, in the fashion of introducing classical quotations into works of various kinds. This latter procedure was less pedantic than would at first appear, for Latin was still, to some extent, the traditional language of the learned, and represented the great link between our own reformers and those of other lands. It was used by Elizabeth in conversation with foreign ambassadors, and “latine ends,” as Chapman put it, “were part of a gentleman and a good scholler.” The inevitable result was an almost reckless borrowing of classical words, an occasional use of Latin idiom and, in some cases, an imitation of classical style.

The process of adopting classical and, indeed, all foreign words, is plainly shown in the various texts. At first they are frankly inserted as foreign elements and appear in their alien form; but they are often followed by explanations added to such phrases as “that is to saie” or “as we terme it.” Then, later, they take their places without any explanation, though, as they appear not unfrequently in synonyms like “synchroni or time-fellows,” “accersed and called together,” their respective meanings may still be gathered from the context.

But all classical importations did not meet with the same fate. In the struggle for naturalisation, different words obtained different degrees of success, according to the dictates of that mysterious arbiter “the genius of the language”; and, when Puttenham, for instance, objects to such words as “audacious,” “fecundity” and “compatible,” he only shows the inability of contemporaries to anticipate the verdict of time. Some of the claimants for naturalisation were adopted with little or no change of form, as, for instance, “epitome,” “effigies,” “spondee,” “catastrophe.” Others retained their original forms for a time, as “subjectum,” “energia,” “aristocratia” and “statua,” or, again, in the case of inflected forms, “critici,” “sphinges,” “chori,” “ideae,” “misanthropi” and “musaea.” But, in all cases, naturalisation ultimately meant the loss of foreign endings, or their assimilation with the endings and inflections of native origin. Other classical words never became really adopted; they appeared at the whim of an individual and then disappeared, as, for instance, “acroame” (lecture) and “polypragmon” (busybody). This class was fairly large, as almost every writer, in the absence of a standard literary diction, considered himself at liberty to make experiments.

But, if naturalisation in the case of Latin words meant, generally speaking, assimilation with native forms and the adoption of endings similar to those assumed by earlier Latin borrowings derived through the French, no such precedent offered itself in the case of Greek words; for now, for the first time, it became possible to borrow from the Greek direct. Greek words, however, had previously entered the language through the medium of Latin, and now, when technical or other words were taken from the Greek, they were trans-literated into Latin forms, as if they had normally passed through Latin channels. It became recognised in England and elsewhere that the Greek [char] and [char] should be represented in the vernaculars by c, ae, i, oe, u, y and rh; hence, forms like “acme,” “phaenomenon,” “oeconomia,” “enthusiasm” and “rhythm.”

Each word thus naturalised was made to conform gradually with the English mode of accentuation, and to this general rule Greek and Latin proper names formed no exception. They were adopted with or without inflection, and the accent was thrown as far back as possible, irrespective of quantities: this accounts for the accentuation of such forms as Hypérion and Andrónicus.

It was only natural that these classical borrowings should retain, at first, their original meanings; and so we find many words used in a sense from which they have since departed, as, for instance, “fact” (deed), “success” (sequel), “sentence” (opinion), “prevent” (go before). Such words as these, being more or less strange to the common idiom of that age, were well suited to form part of its literary material; whereas, to a later age, which assigns to them different meanings, they suggest an archaic flavour, which is one of the charms of Elizabethan diction. Not unfrequently, they would deteriorate in meaning; this is true of classical words to a greater extent than of native words, and of this depreciation, “impertinent” and “officious” are examples.

Sometimes, however, classical enthusiasm would distort word-forms, which had been derived at an earlier date from Latin through Romance, and, consequently, attempts were made to restore letters which had been normally lost in that passage. Thus, b was inserted in “doubt” and “debt,” l in “vault” and “fault,” d in “advantage” and “advance,” while “apricock” was thus written probably in view of the Latin in aprico coctus. Then, again, the form “amicable” appeared by the side of “amiable,” “absency” (Latin “absentia”) together with the French “absence;” through the influence of Greek, “queriste” became “choriste,” while “fantasy” varied with “phantasy;” and, in other forms like “fruict,” “traditour” (traitor), “feact” (fact), “traictise” and “conceipt,” are visible further pedantries not destined to be permanent. Occasionally, more aúdacious changes took place in attempts to suggest a fanciful etymology: as, for instance, when “fere” (O.E. “gefera,” companion) was written “pheere,” or when “eclogues” appeared as “aeglogues,” as if to connect it with the Greek [char] (goat). The frail foundation upon which most of such changes rested may be gathered from the statement of one writer that the words “wind” and “way” were derived from the Latin “ventus” and “via,” while the spelling “abhominable,” as if from the Latin ab homine, was generally accepted. Indeed, even in the case of so worthy an antiquary as Camden, we find the paradox that “the Old English … could call a Comet a Fixed Starre … which is all one with Stella Crinita.” The result of all this was the introduction of a number of artificial spellings, many of which, having been retained, have greatly contributed to the vagaries of our modern orthography.

The effect of this host of classical borrowings was to increase, in many ways, the capabilities of the language in the matter of expression. They formed the language of reasoning, of science and of philosophy; from them, mainly, were drawn artistic and abstract terms, whereas the language of emotion, particularly that of the drama, remained very largely Teutonic in kind. Not unseldom, a classical word was borrowed, though its equivalent already existed in English, and this usage gave rise to frequent synonyms. The use of synonyms was by no means normal in English, nor was it ineffective as a literary device. They had entered very largely into Old English verse, and were still a feature of Elizabethan English, as may be seen from combinations like “acknowledge and confess,” “humble and lowly,” “assemble and meet together,” in the English liturgy, or such forms as “limited and confined,” “wonder and admiration,” to be found elsewhere. Their increased use, at this date, was due partly to the exuberant character of the age, partly to an increase in the material available for such forms and partly to the plastic condition of the language, which made it easy for an unfamiliar word to be supplemented by one of a more familiar kind. The result of this usage was to give to the prose style a greater flexibility of rhythm, while, in course of time, the double forms, having become “desynonymised,” furnished abundant material for the expression of slight shades of meaning. Another important effect of a certain section of these classical borrowings was to give an impetus to the art of forming compounds, which, though much practised in the earliest English period, had been somewhat neglected in Middle English times. Chapman’s translation of Homer, in particular, brought before the age many Homeric compounds, such as “thunder-loving Jove,” “the ever-shining eyes,” “fresh-sprung herbs” and “well-greaved Greeks.” Many of these forms were preserved in the language, and from this period date some of the happiest of Pope’s compound epithets.