Latin in English 1500-1800

Andrea Di Giovanni



In Early Modern English, the use of Latin had become an increasingly troubled aspect of two diverging forums in England: the academic and the religious.  Both of these areas underwent huge changes during the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Humanist movement of the Renaissance had placed new emphasis on the ideal of an ancient way of life exemplified by the Greek and Latin classics, and England joined the rest of Europe in embracing the Humanist movement (Olgilvie 5).  The first school with an exclusively classical curriculum opened in England in 1528, and the rush of similar schools that followed in its wake coincided “with the rise of the merchant class who sought the utility of a secular education and were emboldened by the example of their continental brothers” (Olgilvie 5). Despite the allure of the classics, as the Early Modern period progressed in England both the academic and the religious communities tended towards an increasing use of the vernacular. There were many reasons for this shift towards an all-pervasive vernacular and Tony Crowley notes that the “crucial conjunction of the rise of Protestantism with the technological advance of print capitalism had… tied the language firmly to the nation and thereby massively enhanced its status (Crowley 55). The move away from Latin in the church, courts of law, and classrooms meant that the English language essentially became integral to questions of national identity, not only with respect to other nations, but also within England itself. 


While the use of English as an academic tongue grew, so too did its lexicon, as academic disciplines such as science and religion imported and reshaped Latin words into anglicized versions in order to fill conceptual voids in English (Burke 38). What is important to note is that, as English gained increasing significance in educational and ecclesiastical fields, it did so by appropriating areas where only Latin had existed previously. However, it is also important to note that Latin, despite its eventual displacement by English in England, remained a crucial skill for a student of letters.  As Burke notes, both Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida and Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calender found themselves translated into Latin in 1635 and 1653 respectively (Burke 28).  Troilus and Cressida appeared in an Anglo-Latin edition entitled Amorvm Troili et Creseidae libri duo priores Anglico-Latini and was printed by John Lichfield in Oxford (EEBO).  The Shepherd’s Calender became Calendarium pastorale and it also appeared with parallel Latin and English texts.  The Latin translation was provided by one William Bathurst (EEBO). These translations demonstrate the perception of Latin as a language of the learned and as a method of conferring added dignity and importance to a text.


In the academic arena, Latin was very important as part of the humanist ideal of one who excelled in both “contemplation and service to the state” (Rice Jr. 106).  In the English Renaissance the revival of interest in classical learning made Latin an indispensable skill for studying the classical authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Homer (Ogilvie 6).  However, just as the Anglo-Saxon clerics translated their Latin texts into Old English, an increased demand for the translation of these classics into English resulted – a practice that resulted in an influx of Latin loanwords (Millward 225). The knowledge of Latin was important both academically and in international relations:  it provided a common medium through which the educated elite of the Early Modern Period could share ideas and discoveries, and with no political affiliation, Latin was a neutral mode of communication (Burke 35 my emphasis). Speaking Latin was the sign of the educated elite and the only guaranteed manner of reaching an international audience (Burke 32, 35).


While full participation in the life of the Renaissance required the knowledge of Latin, the results of the English Reformation meant that Latin was not only an increasingly impractical language through which to communicate with the common Christian, but, as Millward notes, its “association with the Roman Catholic Church and England’s continental adversaries tended to undermine its previously unquestioned status as the language of learning” (Millward 226)  Originally, England did not follow the Continental Reformation; King Henry VIII was a conservative who wrote a book against Luther in 1521 (Rice Jr. 200).  However,  his desire to divorce, Catherine of Aragón, and the Church’s inability to grant his request (Rice Jr. 201) resulted in England’s separation form the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. The language of the Christian church in England subsequently underwent great change and English gained prominence in a significant cultural area in which Latin functioned before.  Shortly after England’s break with Rome the Book of the Common Prayer and administration of the Sacramentes, and other Rites and Ceremonies after the Use of the Churche of England (Book of Common Prayer) was developed in 1549 to unite the country in a single method of worship (Crystal 65).  As Crystal notes, the Book of Common Prayer is the source of much of the vernacular idiom of English prayer and the unifying force of a common language helped to forge a national identity. 


The Social Status of Latin and Latin Borrowings


Tony Crowley discusses Bakhtin’s notion of the liberation of the vernacular: English as “set free from the dominance of Latin” (Crowley 55). However, while English certainly began to come into its own as the Early Modern Period progressed, Latin could not be completely abandoned for reasons of both tradition and practicality. According to Crowley, when Locke argued in ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ (1690) that “‘if a gentleman be to study any language, it ought to be that of his own country’” he meant that the grammatical or rhetorical study of the language is important (Crowley 74).  Locke’s opinion with respect to Latin was that it was “absolutely necessary” for the development of a true gentleman (Crowley 75).  The knowledge and deployment of Latin was considered an important upper class trait, and one that was zealously guarded to maintain class distinctions.  Locke, and others, believed that people who would presumably have no use for Latin – the merchant class and women –  should not waste their time and money learning it (Crowley 75). Latin was associated with the learned and leisured and the vernacular was associated with the merchant class (Crowley 75).


For more practical reasons, Latin could not be wholly abandoned by the English.  Beginning in the Renaissance and Reformation and continuing into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English language experienced a huge influx of borrowed words. Latin was the main source of these borrowings (Nevalainen 364), and the influx increased as the vernacular began to be used more extensively in academic and scientific circles.  Some knowledge of Latin was needed to speak confidently in subjects such as theology, science, and law in English.  The result was a huge increase of English vocabulary and Nevalainen writes that the period from the late sixteenth to mid-seventeeth century was the “period of the fastest vocabulary growth in the history of English in proportion to the vocabulary size of the time” (Nevalainen 336).  This saturation of English with foreign words not only attracted criticism – purists referred to excessive Latin borrowings and constructions as “inkhorn” terms and were much opposed to their use (Crystal 60, Nevalainen 359) – but also resulted in the need for English-English dictionaries to explain the new terms that had entered the lexicon.  The instability of the language, due in part to the influx of words, was taken up by writers such as Johnathan Swift his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712). Swift hoped to reform and stabilize the language “order to create a proper vehicle of communication” (Crowley 60).  It was not until Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 after finding the state of things to be “copious without order,” (Crowley 56) that the English language was examined meticulously (Crystal 74).


Samuel Johnson, Inkhornisms, and Language as a Social Marker


The Renaissance and Reformation had set in motion a linguistic path away from Latin and towards the vulgar tongue – English.  As Tony Crowley writes, the English language found itself wracked by issues of standardization in spelling, grammar, and usage (Crowley 55-6).  Crowley also notes that the creation of a Standard English inevitably meant that some forms and usages had to be left out (Crowley 56) and scholars often attempt to show that Johnson’s particular position on the social scale is explicable by an examination of his habits of usage and which terms he included in the Dictionary. Susan M. Fitzmaurice notes that in the eighteenth century “a facility to speak well and appropriately seemed increasingly to guarantee social mobility” (Fitzmaurice 309).  The burgeoning English language, then, while it provided a distinct national identity, also served to reinforce class distinctions.  The ‘type’ of English one spoke, made up of one’s vocabulary and usage, accorded one a particular place on the social scale.  Johnson, despite his Latin training and complex linguistic constructions , was the son of a bookseller (Ousby 491) and not of the gentility.  Instead, as Hudson points out, despite the tendency to consider Johnson’s Dictionary as “an instrument for suppressing lower-class idioms and for authorizing the language of the upper classes as the only ‘proper’ English,” his inclusion of some cant and ‘low’ words and exclusion of other words considered acceptable by fashionable society meant that the Dictionary was not a “polite” book. Fashionable society subsequently treated Johnson just as his Dictionary is accused of dividing others along “class lines”(Hudson 77, 88, 89).


Critics, both in his own day and in the present, associate Johnson’s prose style and his excessive use of Latinisms as the mark of one overtly attempting to climb the social ladder.  Hudson quotes from Thomas Edwards, a contemporary of Johnson’s, who complains in 1755 that Johnson crowds his work with “monstrous words…which were never used by any who pretended to talk or write English” (Hudson 88).  These “monstrous words” are known as inkhorn terms, and Johnson had a great affinity for them.  Hudson notes that this “reveals the influence of seventeenth-century science and philosophy on his thought” since the seventeenth century was a period of rapid change from Latin to the vernacular (Hudson 88 fn).  J.C.D. Clark believes that since Johnson was trained in the Anglo-Latin tradition, he had a high emotional investment in its continuance and consistently bemoaned the demise of Latin in everyday usage (Clark 67 and Weinbrot 176).  On the other hand, ‘polite’ society found Johnson’s excessive use of inkhorn terms such as aedespotick, turbinated, and perflation, off-putting and his style “stilted and opaque” (Hudson 88-9).


The resistance Johnson encountered with respect to Latinisms was not a new form of protest to surface against the flagrant use of inkhorn terms to augment the English lexicon.  Inkhorn terms are so named because they tend to be used more in writing than in speech (inkhorns or inkpots were containers in which one stored ink) and are largely held to be a literary affectation (McArthur 521).  McArthur records a passage by Thomas Wilson in The Arte of Rhetorique written in 1553:


Among all other lessons this should be first learned, that we never affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speak as is commonly received: nether seeking to be over fine nor yet living over-careless, using our speeche as most men doe, and ordering our wittes as the fewest have done.  Some seeke so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language.


Wilson’s examples of inkhorn terms are: revoluting, ingent affability, ingenious capacity, and splendidious (McArthur 521).  A contemporary of Wilson’s, Sir John Cheke, who also destested inkhorn terms writes to Sir Thomas Hoby in 1557: “I am of this opinion that our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowing of other tongues” (Johnson 115).  A sense of national identity was intimately linked with the “purity” of the language spoken.


Inkhornisms became so thoroughly associated with Samuel Johnson that in the 1780s the term “Johnsonian” was coined to refer to his particular style of inkhornism or anything resembling it.  McArthur notes that Johnson’s moralizing essays in The Rambler best exemplify “Johnsonian” writing with its long words and phrases such as “I could seldom escape to solitude, or steal a moment from the emulation of complaisance, and the vigilance of officiousness” (McArthur 549).  The eighteenth century tended away from such formal discourse, and Johnson Latinate vocabulary was not well accepted (McArthur 549). In the nineteenth century another word, “Johnsonese” surfaced as another pejorative term to refer to the elevated style of Samuel Johnson  (McArthur 549) and it alludes to the notion that Johnson’s static attempt at upward social mobility and his highly esoteric writing style employing Latin and Latinisms to maintain a scholarship as a “profession” was considered uncouth and pedantic (Hudson 88-89). Samuel Johnson is the perfect example of a scholar caught in the crossfire between nationalistic tendencies towards a pure vernacular, and the long European history of Latin in academia. 


By the end of the eighteenth century the position of the vernacular English as the language of academia, religion, and law was complete:  in 1687 Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica had appeared in Latin in order to reach the broadest audience (Millward 227 and Rice. Jr. 18.) whereas in 1704 Newton’s Opticks; or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections, and colours of light  was published in English marking the period in which significant scholarly work began to appear in the vernacular (McArthur 587). By 1776 the prevalence of Latin in the academic realm in England had declined sharply, and the authority of English was assured (Finegan 536).While English had certainly come into its own by the end of the eighteenth century, it is important to bear in mind what Peter Burke calls a “provision conclusion” surrounding the case of Latin versus the Vernacular, in this case, English:  “Although declared ‘dead’, Latin would not lie down.  It remained useful, indeed vigorous in particular domains and in particular parts of Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (Burke 24).  For example, in fields such as medicine and botany, Latin remained, and is still today, a crucial tool for learning, and knowledge of the Latin involved still functions to designate one as learned in the area.


Suggested Reading:

Peter Burke,  Heu domine, adsunt Turcae: A Sketch for a Social History of Post-medieval Latin.” In Language, Self, and Society: A Social History of Language” Peter Burke and Roy Porter, eds.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991. 23-50.


Tony Crowley, Language in History: Theories and Texts. London: Routledge, 1996.


Nicholas Hudson, “Johnson’s Dictionary and the Politics of ‘Standard English’” The Yearbook of English Studies 28 (1998) 77-93.


Francis R. Johnson, “Latin versus English: The Sixteenth-Century debate over scientific terminology.” Studies in Philology. 41 (1944) 109-135.


Terttu Nevalainen, “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics,” In Roger Lass, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)


Edward F. Rice Jr., Foundations of Early Modern Europe 1460-1559. 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).


Howard D. Weinbrot, “Johnson, Jacobitism, and the Historiography of Nostalgia,” The Age of Johnson 7 (1996) 163-211.






Works Cited

Burke, Peter “Heu domine, adsunt Turcae: A Sketch for a Social History of Post medieval Latin.”       In Language, Self, and Society: A Social History of Language” Peter Burke and Roy Porter,    eds.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991. 23-50


Clark J.C.D. Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics fromt eh     Restoration to Romanticism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


Crowley, Tony.  Language in History: Theories and Texts. London: Routledge, 1996.


Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge:  Cambridge         University Press, 1995.


Finegan, Edward. “English Grammar and Common Usage.” In The Cambridge History of the English Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Johnson, Francis R. “Latin versus English: The Sixteenth-Century debate over scientific        terminology.” Studies in Philology. 41 (1944) 109-135.


Lapidge, Michael. “The Anglo-Latin Background.” In A New Critical History of Old  English Literature. Stanly B. Greenfield and David G. Calder, eds. New York:            New York         University Press, 1986.


Fitzmaurice, Susan M. “The Commerce of Language in the Pursuit of Politeness in Eighteenth           Century England.” English Studies 4 (1998) 309-328.


Hudson, Nicholas. “Johnson’s Dictionary and the Politics of ‘Standard English.’” The           Yearbook of English Studies. 28 (1998) 77-93.


McArthur, Tom ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language.Oxford: Oxford           University Press,            1992.


Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language, 2nd ed. Orlando: Holt, Rinehart and   Winston, Inc. 1996.


Nevalainen, Terttu. “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics,” In Roger Lass, ed.            The       Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3.Cambridge:     Cambridge         University Press, 1999.


Ogilvie, R.M.. Latin and Greek: A History of the Influence of the Classics on English Life from        1600 to 1918. Connecticut: Archon Books, 1964.


Ousby, Ian.  The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press,            1995.


Rice Jr., Edward F.  Foundations of Early Modern Europe 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W. W.      Norton & Company, 1994.


Weinbrot, Howard D.  “Johnson, Jacobitism, and the Historiography of Nostalgia.” The Age of          Johnson. New York:  AMS Press, Inc. 1996.


Early English Books Online (EEBO) April 21, 2003.