English Language and Literature

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English Language and

At the end of the 1400s, most scholars in England still relied on Latin rather than English in their writings. A standard version of written English existed, which was used by merchants and printers in London. In everyday speech, however, the people of England used a great variety of dialects.

During the 1500s, English began to outstrip Latin in importance. After the nation broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, English, rather than the Latin of Rome, became the preferred language for Bibles and prayer books. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English literature blossomed, and the English language became a symbol of the nation as well as the national church.


As English grew in importance during the Renaissance, scholars disagreed about its suitability for literary and scholarly works. Many feared that the vocabulary of the English language was too limited. Writers and translators developed two different views on how to add words to the language.

One group of authors favored expanding English by borrowing words from other languages, especially Latin, French, and Italian. Rather than waiting for English to absorb words from French and Latin, as it had done in the past, translators and other scholars began inserting foreign words into their texts. They hoped these words would make their way into the English language. Scholars who supported borrowing words from other languages also argued that English words did not sound as good as some foreign words.

The members of the opposing camp were the purists. In the words of one prominent purist, their aim was to keep English "clean and pure, unmixed … with borrowing." They formed new words from existing English words by compounding, adding prefixes and suffixes, and changing the way they used words. English writers such as Edmund Spenser also favored bringing outdated English words back into circulation as a way to extend the language.

Both sides had some success. Between 1580 and 1600, the purists fueled the largest expansion of English vocabulary in the Renaissance. By the end of the 1500s, however, many people considered native English to be "low." The highest circles of society—including the royal court—spoke a refined form of English that relied heavily on Latin.


While the English language was growing in size and importance, English writers were still looking to classical* models for style. One of the greatest challenges for English authors was learning to balance these classical styles with the unique patterns of the English language.

Prose Styles. Most English schools of the 1500s followed a humanist* program. As a result, English prose writing strongly reflected classical styles. Rhetoric* formed a major part of the curriculum. Even when students wrote in English, they drew on ancient Greek and Roman models for structure and style. The idea of "originality" in prose writing came to mean going back to the origins of literature—by imitating and modifying antique texts—rather than creating something entirely new. Writers showed their individuality in the way that they blended these ancient sources with their own everyday experience.

Writing style took on great importance for authors of the 1500s. In fact, many writers believed that the form of expression was as important as the ideas they expressed. These authors filled their work with elaborate figures of speech and sound patterns. Other writers followed an approach based on the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, which involved blending style with substance.

Modern scholars identify two extremes in Elizabethan writing styles, using terms drawn from the ancient Roman writer Cicero. The so-called Asiatic style is elaborate and ornate, while the Attic style is tight and focused. The most complex form of Asiatic writing appears in the work of English writer John Lyly. His style, known as euphuism, carefully balanced the length, structure, and sound patterns of phrases within a sentence. Lyly hoped that this highly polished form of English would give his nation's court the kind of elegance that other European courts seemed to have. Other writers, such as the essayist Francis Bacon, cared more about force and precision than about elegance. Bacon represents the most extreme example of the Attic style. His sparse, direct writing conveyed his ideas clearly and with an air of authority.

Poetic Styles. During Elizabeth's reign, English poets developed a clear understanding of prosody, the study of meter in poetry. Although poets of the mid-1500s used fixed patterns of meter in their verse, they had trouble making these patterns fit the rhythm of human speech. The rhythms of their poems were either awkward and uneven or technically perfect but stiff and unnatural. In the decades that followed, poets learned how to use meter in a more flexible way, and by the year 1600, they had mastered the technique.

One of the most important lessons the poets learned was that meter was not rigid. They realized that they did not need to place exactly the same amount of stress on each accented syllable. A writer might choose to use strict meter, as Edmund Spenser did in the following line of iambic pentameter* from "Mother Hubberd's Tale":

To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run

However, a line of iambic pentameter did not have to bounce violently and predictably between hard and weak syllables. Instead, it might keep the ups and downs of the meter without interfering with the normal pattern of speech. Christopher Marlowe used this approach in the following line from Tamburlaine the Great:

My nature and the terror of my name

Elizabethan poets also learned to make effective use of monosyllabic, or single-syllable, words. The English language's wealth of monosyllabic words kept English poets from using some of the meters of ancient verse, which depended on words of many syllables. However, English poets came to realize that a monosyllabic word could serve as either an accented or an unaccented syllable, depending on where it is used. Shakespeare illustrated this idea in Sonnet 129, making the same words, "well" and "knows," both stressed and unstressed in the same line:

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well

Finally, Elizabethan poets argued over the question of rhyme. Some believed that rhyme made their poems more beautiful. Others considered it an unnecessary frill that English poets should avoid, as classical poets had done. Neither side won the argument, and today volumes of both rhymed and unrhymed Elizabethan poetry survive. Poets such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Ben Jonson wrote rhymed verse in many forms, including the sonnet*, the romantic epic*, the narrative, and the elegy*. Meanwhile, blank (unrhymed) verse became the favored form for dramatic verse, as in the plays of Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, Marlowe, and Shakespeare.


The Elizabethan age was a rich period for English literature. As literacy* rates increased, a variety of genres* became popular. Although Elizabethans enjoyed drama, they tended to think of it as a type of performance rather than a form of literature. However, they read many forms of poetry and prose. Popular works included romances*, reports of voyages to the New World, stories of England's glorious past, and pamphlets describing witchcraft and society's underworld. The new genres enabled the public's political, social, and even sexual values to find their way into print.

Elizabethan Fiction. At the beginning of the Renaissance, England had a well-developed tradition of oral (spoken) storytelling. Reading aloud in a group, as a social activity, was much more common than solitary reading. Therefore, writers of fiction often designed their works to be engaging when read aloud. John Lyly's elaborate style, with its patterns of rhythm, sound, and repetition, is an example of this technique.

After the development of commercial printing, books became more widely available—more than 100 works of fiction were published during the Elizabethan period. These printed texts were much cheaper than handwritten manuscripts. For the first time, anyone with a little extra money could own books. As printed works became more common, many of the strategies that had worked well in oral reading came to seem clumsy. By the end of the 1500s, writers had adapted their styles to fit the format of the printed book. They also changed their subject matter to suit the tastes of their larger audiences. Romances and crime stories were some of the most popular genres.

Publishing also changed the nature of writing in other ways. Before publishing, most authors were upper-class men who circulated their manuscripts only among friends. As printing rapidly became a business, these authors feared that other people might consider their writing to be paid labor—something they saw as disgraceful. Therefore, early published writers often made excuses for going into print, denying that they were writing for money. One author claimed that a friend had taken his book to a printer without his approval; another said that his friends had demanded that he publish his work.

By the end of the 1500s, print had become the accepted format for written works, and these kinds of excuses were the subject of mockery. The first English author to make a living by writing was Robert Greene (ca. 1558–1592). Greene wrote more than 30 works of fiction, many of them openly commercial. His work marks the shift in English literature from a mainly oral form to a printed one.

Romances. Chivalric* romances, which told of the adventures of knights, were widely popular in Elizabethan England. The chivalric tradition drew on the British legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. However, during the Renaissance the romance also served a political function. The English interest in chivalry was largely imported from the Netherlands, a trading partner of England and home to many Protestants. The Dutch had revived the tradition of chivalry to add vigor to a revolt against the Catholic Spanish, who controlled the Netherlands at the time.

English writers who sympathized with the Dutch cause showed their support through chivalric literature. The Faerie Queene (1596), a chivalric romance by Edmund Spenser, contained an allegory* of the Dutch struggle against the Spanish. Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote the romance Arcadia (1590), believed that chivalric romances had a natural link to military service. Sidney died in 1586 as a soldier fighting for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. The chivalric romance remained popular throughout Elizabeth's reign but fell from favor after her death.

Satire. Satire* played a major role in Elizabethan literature. Renaissance satirists saw themselves as doctors to society, diagnosing its disorders in an attempt to restore its health. Like other literature of the Elizabethan era, satire reflected classical models, particularly those of ancient Rome.

Many well-known Renaissance poets produced satirical verses. Edmund Spenser accused the royal court of envy, malice, and laziness. John Donne imagined London as hell on earth. Ben Jonson urged Elizabethans to return to the basic values of friendship and honesty, rather than the commercial values then on the rise in England.

Elizabethan prose satirists adopted a hard-boiled style. Writers such as Thomas Nashe exposed the immoral elements of society in much the same way that today's tabloids do. They also targeted people or groups that they found corrupt. One of the satirists' subjects, the church establishment, defended itself from their attacks by issuing restraining orders, burning books, and banning satires.

Satirists also wrote for the stage. Ben Jonson described his play Every Man Out of His Humor (1599) as a "comical satire." This dramatic form, also known as "city comedy," used exaggerated characters to portray specific cultural or moral types. Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (ca. 1601–1602) is a biting example of dramatic satire. It warns audiences that pursuing individual passions will lead to a breakdown of morals.

Elizabethan Bawdy. Bawdy—a form of indecent humor, often dealing with sex—appeared in many forms of Elizabethan literature. Bawdy humor often took the form of a simple joke or a pun. In other cases, an actor might make a vulgar gesture onstage for comic effect or to give the playwright's words a humorously suggestive alternate meaning. Same-sex love was a common topic of bawdy humor. Bathroom humor was also popular.

Foreign works written entirely in a bawdy style were also popular in England. They included classical poetry addressed to a god of fertility, Italian poems with hidden sexual meanings, and Spanish chivalric romances that included sexual situations. Thomas Nashe used elements of these works in his own bawdy writing. Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Donne also penned bawdy poems. Such works reflect the standards of the Elizabethan age about what was indecent and what was funny. Their jokes about women, the mentally ill, and the uneducated might seem tasteless to modern audiences.

(See alsoBible; Chivalry; Drama, English; Poetry, English; Humor; Literature. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* iambic pentameter

line of poetry consisting of ten syllables, or five metric feet, with emphasis placed on every other syllable

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* elegy

type of poem often used to express sorrow for one who has died

* literacy

ability to read

* genre

literary form

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

You and Thou

As the English language evolved, the old plural pronoun "you" gradually replaced the pronoun "thou" for speaking to an individual. During the Renaissance, people used both terms, depending on whom they were addressing. "You" was the more polite form, used between social equals and by servants speaking to their superiors. People used "thou," the more casual form, to address a social inferior. This term could also show affection between very close friends and family members. In any other situation, however, "thou" became an insult that showed anger or a lack of respect.

* chivalric

referring to the rules and customs of medieval knighthood

* allegory

literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities, and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

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English Language and Literature

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