In my previous article I said that we would go on to take a look at the social and economic circumstances which bore great influence on the progress of our tongue. Well, today we shall indeed look at the changes that took place, mainly in the 16th century, and which affected our dear old language greatly. However, many of these modifications were obviously linked to and caused changes in other fields, so do forgive me if I appear to be drifting off into some apparently unrelated sphere. Please bear with me, and I promise I’ll bring you back to Earth safely.
Firstly I’d like to preface these few paragraphs with a brief statement to the effect that the period from 1450 to 1750, commonly called the Early Modern English period, was characterised by startling developments in human achievements . Not only did the language begin to modernise, but society did too. It progressed from the mediaeval to the modern, bringing about an intellectual and economic liberation that had been unthinkable in previous centuries. For example, the traditional dogmas of the Catholic church were tossed away in favour of freedom of thought and scientific opportunity.
So let’s start by taking a look at the Renaissance. “What’s that?” I hear the uneducated amongst you cry. Well, the Renaissance was, in simple terms, “a time of revival of art, literature, and learning in Europe”, which began in the 14th century and extended to the 17th century, thus “marking the transition from the mediaeval to the modern world.” So what’s this got to do with English? Quite a lot, in fact.
As scholars were rediscovering the works of many classical scholars of Greek and Roman times, their works were coming into demand by the newly-emerging merchant classes of Britain. However, most of these newly wealthy merchants were not quite up to the mark in their educational achievements, being virtually illiterate in the typical language of scholarship and learning, which was still clearly Latin. Either that, or they were unwilling to struggle with the language, so they therefore needed translations into English to satisfy their curiosity. Enter the recently developed printing presses, who were keen to produce the texts that the new burgher classes wanted to read.
This is where the link with the English language really deepens. As the development of printing stimulated growth in the translation of texts into English, the need for some sort of a standard in the language grew stronger. William Caxton, whom we mentioned last week as one of the most influential people in the nurture of our tongue, was one of the first to oblige the new market’s commercial needs, and adopted a script that was to have a profound standardising effect on the language. Anyway, more about him next week, let’s not try and drift off the theme too much.
The second area to delve into is that of the Reformation, or the split in the Catholic church. Now, I can appreciate that some of you might be scowling in disbelief at the idea that the Catholic church might have played a part in the development of our language, but just hold your judgement for a while and read on. In fact, the Pope and his Catholic apostles were at one time dominant across all of Europe, but their hegemony was challenged in the 16th century by groups of people who came to be called Protestants. The exact nature of their dispute is not for me to discuss in these few lines, but the outcome of their dispute was certainly important, especially for English.
In short, adventurous tyrants such as King Henry 8th declared their independence from papal authority, and set about forging new ideas in the cultural and religious world. Fortunately for him the newly-invented printing press enabled him to do just that with a fair degree of ease. The publication of the Bible in English in the mid-16th century has since been regarded as one of the most decisive moments in creating a standard English. In other words, if King Henry hadn’t been such a demon for divorce, the English language that we speak today might well have followed a different path.
The third aspect that we need to consider is ‘humanism’, or the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’, and it is in no small way related to the hoo-hah noted in the previous two paragraphs. Essentially, as academics began to feel themselves freed from the restrictive cloaks of pre-Reformation times, they became more disposed to regard aspects of human life as the product of human endeavour, rather then divine inspiration. This freedom brought with it many scholarly treatises on language and grammar, as well as dictionaries.
Moreover, the consequent discussion of modern discoveries made by, for example, Copernicus and Newton, caused many new English words to be coined. This in turn led to new forms of reasoning and argument, needed to develop and sustain such ideas, and which required great innovation in the grammatical resources (and resourcefulness) of English.
The result of all of the above human phenomena was that a certain standardisation occured in the English language. It was transformed “from a vernacular language into one with a standardised variety that could be identified with a single nation-state: England”. Such was the power of the social and economic conditions of the time, that they helped to create a ‘de jure’ language from a ‘de facto’ one. As you can see, English is still sometimes still lacking in its scope, and unfortunately remains dependent on Latin for some of its more profound expressions.