The Oxford History of the English Language

By Lynda Mugglestone | Go to book overview

8
THE BABEL OF
RENAISSANCE ENGLISH

Paula Blank

THE early modern period in England saw the first systematic attempts to create, or recreate, a universal language, a ‘perfect’ tongue. Significantly, the declared motive behind the numerous universal languages designed and advanced in the seventeenth century was to ‘remedy Babel’, to level the diversity of human vernaculars and, on a national level, to undo a perceived confusion with English itself by reconstructing or inventing a common language. Many scholarly histories of the English language have often appeared to have the same, implicit aim—pre-emptively to ‘fix’ the problem of linguistic diversity within early modern England. And it was considered a problem. Long accounted the ancient source of national, racial, and linguistic differences, the ‘curse’ of Babel was newly construed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a contemporary phenomenon, not just the legacy of a Biblical past, but a consequence of new, ‘multicultural’ developments with the vernacular. An influx of foreign words and a habit of creating new English words out of foreign elements made the early modern vernacular lexicon a ‘hotch-pot’ of native and alien forms. The present chapter aims to remedy the insularity of studies that focus on the rise of a standard, national language in late Renaissance England by reconstructing what Renaissance writers deemed the ‘Babel’ of early modern English.

This chapter will therefore survey Renaissance ‘Englishes’—not the standard language of early modern vernacular writing, but the variety of regional and social dialects which came to be represented in that writing. The ‘King's English’ (the phrase is attributed to the reign of Henry V (1413–22)) was not yet a sovereign domain of language, establishing one, accepted ‘rule’ for speech or

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