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Early modern English loanwords (part 2)

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain the words available to Shakespeare, providing further insights into loanwords.
What was happening in Shakespeare’s time is that English was turning into a kaleidoscope of languages which could be deployed for multiple purposes. Let’s get a sense of this by rewriting Macbeth’s famous speech. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas in incarnadine, making the green one red.” Let’s get rid of those two key latinate words, multitudinous and incarnadine. Now we have, “Will great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the many seas make red, making the green one red.” That now sounds pretty horrible.
It’s partly because the final line is not now glossing the potentially obscure Latin line, and instead is mundanely repeating it. But it’s also because of the literal sound of the line. The first lines of this speech, especially the first and the third, are rhythmical. They have the beat of typical Shakespearean metrical verse. That is to say five heavy beats in a line, often preceded by a light beat. Rhythm, metre, verse, that might sound alien to some of you, but there are strong similarities to what today’s rappers do. I have underlined the syllables that are stressed in the Latinate line. Note the regular alternation. I will read it out and exaggerate. “The multitudinous seas incarnadine.”
This then sets up the final line for a striking dramatic contrast. We seem to have three beats in a row, “making the green one red.” My general point here is that the adoption of other languages into English expanded Shakespeare’s options. Before leaving Latin loanwords, we should mention the particular case of malapropisms. Perhaps one might think of malapropisms as learner errors. Some of the attempts to use a foreign word but get it wrong. It is a bit more than this. The word malapropism is derived from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals. It is also a device for both characterization and humour in plays.
The character uses a word that is nonsense or humorous in context, but sounds similar to one that would be appropriate. Let’s look at some Shakespearean examples. Launcelot Gobbo says, “He hath a great infection, sir, as one would say, to serve.” But he clearly meant to say, “He hath a great affection, sir, as one would say, to serve.” Another example, Mistress Quickly, inadvertently becomes a little risque when she says, “She does so take on with her men, she mistook their erection.” She clearly meant to say she does so take on with her men, they clearly mistook their direction. The net result of such cases is that characters become figures of fun.
If we consider who gets the Latin words to speak, it is not surprising that lowish middling status characters in Shakespeare like Gobbo and Quickly, are given a lot of Latin to speak. They either are being set up for humorous failure, or constructed as absurdly arrogant and bombastic with these posh sophisticated words. The other group that gets a lot is high status characters. The nobility. For the obvious reason that they often create a high style, as we saw with Macbeth. Interestingly, in our research, we found that the very highest state social group, the monarchy, do not typically have so many fully Latin words. Perhaps one might speculate because it has unwelcome associations with the Catholic Church.
To wrap up, in this talk and the previous one, I focused on words borrowed from other languages, that is loanwords. Although I focused on Latin, many of the general issues also apply to words from other languages. French and Italian, for example, were lumped together with Latin in the inkhorn controversy. In terms of style characteristics, French sits somewhere in the middle between German vocabulary and latinate. Not surprisingly, people were sometimes getting the new unfamiliar words wrong. Playwrights exploited that, creating figures of fun with malapropisms and the like. And this of course is not confined to Latin.
In Henry V, the French princess mangles English producing a kind of franglais, part of the humour of the scene perhaps, but there were also issues of politics and gender here. Obviously we have seen loanwords deployed in characterization, especially lowish, middling, and fairly high status characters. More generally early modern English was the period when the kaleidoscope of the vocabulary, the huge variety of words took shape, and writers of the time were very much alive to the possibilities.

Following the previous video-talk on English loanwords in general, and Latin in particular, this video-talk focuses on what Shakespeare was doing with those loanwords.

Many of Shakespeare’s specific uses reflect the general stylistic characteristics of Latin in English that were mentioned in the previous video-talk. For example, the fact that Latin loanwords tended to be polysyllabic expanded Shakespeare’s metrical possibilities. An English or Anglo-Saxon word could be swapped for a Latin loanword of similar meaning but with extra syllables to help get the metre or rhythm of a particular line right.

Latin loanwords, with their “high style”, could also contribute to the characterisation of high-status characters, and in fact low-status characters who would inevitably misuse Latin loanwords to humorous effect.

Do you think French and the way it is used by Shakespeare is similar to Latin or are there particular differences? How is Latin and/or French used by English authors today? Does that differ from Shakespeare? Write your thoughts in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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