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Flourishing of Literature in Early New English (Literary Renaissance)
§ 320. The growth of the national literary language and especially the fixation of its Written Standard is inseparable from the flourishing of literature known as the English Literary Renaissance.
The beginnings of the literary efflorescence go back to the 16th c. After a fallow period of dependence on Chaucer, literary activity gained momentum in the course of the 16th c. and by the end of it attained such an importance as it had never known before. This age of literary flourishing is known as the " age of Shakespeare" or the age of Literary Renaissance (also the " Elizabethan age" for it coincided roughly with the reign of Elizabeth). The most notable forerunners of the literary Renaissance in the first half of the 16th c. were the great English humanist Thomas More (1478-1535) and William Tyndale, the translator of the Bible. The chief work of Thomas More, UTOPIA was finished in 1516; it was written in Latin and was first translated into English in 1551. In UTOPIA Th. More expressed his opposition to the way of life in contemporary England, which he defined as " a conspiracy of the rich against the poor" and drew a picture of an ideal imaginary society in which equality, freedom and well-being were enjoyed by all. More's other works were written in English; most interesting are his pamphlets issued during a controversy with W. Tyndale over the translation of the Bible.
William Tyndale was a student at Oxford and Cambridge and a priest in the church. In 1526 he completed a new English translation of the Bible. Both in his translations and original works Tyndale showed himself one of the first masters of English prose. He exerted a great influence not only on the language of the Church but also on literary prose and on the spoken language. The later versions of the Bible, and first of all the Authorised Version — KING JAMES' BIBLE (produced by a body of translators and officially approved in 1611) was in no small measure based on Tyndale's translation.
§ 321. As elsewhere, the Renaissance in England was a period of rapid progress of culture and a time of great men. The literature of Shakespeare's generation proved exceptionally wealthy in writers of the first order.
Many of the great classics, both ancient and modern, were translated into English: Plutarch and Ovid, Montaigne and Thomas More. Religious prose flourished, not only in the translations of the Bible but also in collections of sermons and other theological compositions. Secular prose grew in the philosophical works of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who wrote his chief work, NOVUM ORGANUM in Latin, but proved his mastery of the mother tongue in essays and other compositions.
In that age of poets and dramatists poetry penetrated everywhere " Poetical prose" is the name applied to the romances of John Lyly and Ph. Sidney, to the novels and pamphlets of R. Greene, Th. Nash, Th. Deloney. It is often said that Shakespeare's achievement was largely made possible by the works of his immediate predecessors: the sonnets of Ph. Sidney and E. Spenser, the comedies of John Lyly, the famous tragedies of Th. Kyd, the drama of Christopher Marlowe and other playwrights.
The thirty years or less of Shakespeare's career as actor, poet and playwright were also the culminating years of Spenser's poetry, the years of Ben Jonson's versatile activity as dramatist and poet, the period of the blossoming of the drama represented by many other celebrated names: Thomas Heywood, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont. The vitality of the theatre was due to its broad contact with popular entertainment, national traditions and living speech.
§ 322. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the chief of the Elizabethan dramatists as well as a genius whose writings have influenced every age and every country. Shakespeare's plays were greatly admired in the theatres but less than half of them were printed in his lifetime. The first collected edition of his plays was the Folio of 1623.
It is universally recognised that Shakespeare outclassed all his contemporaries in all genres of drama and poetry (comedies, historical plays, tragedies and sonnets) and surpassed them all in his mastery of the English tongue. His works give an ideal representation of the literary language of his day. His vast vocabulary (amounting to over 20, 000 words), freedom in creating new words and new meanings, versatility of grammatical construction reflect the fundamental properties of the language of the period.
Great literary men of the Elizabethan age
New Sources of Information about the Language.
§ 323. The amount of written matter which has come down to us from the Early NE period is far greater than that of the OE and ME periods, for the simple reason that many more texts were produced and had a better chance to survive during the relatively short span of time which has elapsed since. In addition to the writings of a literary, philosophical, theological, scientific or official character, produced, copied or printed by professionals, there appeared new kinds of written evidence pertaining to the history of the language: private papers. With the spread of education more people could read and write; they began to correspond and to write diaries. Extant family archives contain papers written both by educated and by uncultivated persons. The significance of their evidence for the history of the language is obvious: the writers were not guided by written tradition and could not set themselves any literary aims; they recorded the words, forms and pronunciations in current use, putting their own English on paper and reflecting all kinds of dialectal and colloquial variants. The earliest collections of letters preserved in family archives are the PASTON LETTERS written between 1430 and 1470 by members of the Paston family in Norfolk (i.e. in the East Midland dialect of late ME) and the CELY PAPERS written in the same dialect a short time later.
Numerous private letters of the 16th c. give a fair picture of colloquial speech, so far as it is possible in a written document. Of greatest value is the DIARY of Henry Machyn, a London merchant with no particular education. This diary as well as other private papers, bear testimony to the existence of social differences in the regional dialects, e.g. the existence of Cockney, a lower class London dialect since the early 16th c.
§ 324. The renewed interest in living languages in the 16th and 17th c., which came to be regarded as more important for practical purposes than the classical ones, led to the appearance of one more kind of printed matter: books of instruction for pupils, didactic works and various other compositions dealing with the English language.
§ 325. A large number of early works concerned with the English language deal with " correct writing", in other words with spelling and pronunciation. The current ways of indicating sounds seemed inconsistent to many scholars and school masters; they attempted to improve and regulate the graphic system of the language by designing better alphabets or by proposing rules fo more consistent spelling. In the early 16th c. John Cheke, a scholar of Cambridge and a pioneer among spelling reformers, proposed that all letters should be doubled to indicate length — a practice very irregularly employed betore his time; his associate Thomas Smith in his DIALOGUE CONCERNING THE CORRECT AND EMENDED WRITING OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1568) set out a new alphabet of 34 letters to the same object. The greatest English phonetician of the 16th c., in the opinion of modern philologists, was John Hart, who produced a number of works, especially AN ORTHOGRAPHIE (1569). Being a keen observer he noticed the changing values of the letters brought about by the change in the sounds. His reforms of the English spelling, however, were as unsuccessful as those of his contemporaries. Other prominent scholars made no attempt to reform the spelling but Iried to make it more consistent, or, conversely, to correct the pronunciation in accordance with the spelling.
For all their limitations and failures, the works of the early spelling reformers and phoneticians are important sources of information about the history of English sounds.
§ 326. Manuals of English were also concerned with matters of grammar and vocabulary.
Like many descriptions of other European languages the earliest books dealing with English grammar were modelled on Latin grammars. Thus one of the early guides used in teaching English was a Latin grammar, written by William Lily: ETON LATIN GRAMMAR; it was supplied with English translations and equivalents of Latin forms. The title of another English grammar published in the late 16th c. displays the same approach: A PERFECT SURVEY OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE TAKEN ACCORDING TO THE USE AND ANALOG IE OF THE LATIN.
The grammars of the early 17th c. were more original. Alexander Gill's LOGONOMIA ANGLICA published in 1619, written in Latin, contains English illustrations from contemporary authors, e. g. Ph. Sidney, Ben Jonson.
A new approach was postulated in the English grammar composed by the dramatist Ben Jonson, " for the benefit of all strangers out of his observation of the English language now spoken and in use" (1640). Although in the main he followed the traditional pattern of Latin grammars, he paid special attention to word order as an important feature of English grammatical structure, described the article as a separate part of speech; he was puzzled by the lack of order in verb forms, in moods and adverbs; he grouped the nouns into two declensions and subdivided the verbs into conjugations.
The first author to break with the Latin tradition was John Wallis, the most famous of all the 17th c. grammarians and phoneticians. His GRAMMAT1CA LlNGUÆ ANGLICANÆ was first published in 1653; it was translated into English and went into many editions in the second half of the 17th c. (see § 335 for English grammars of the succeeding period).
§ 327. Other kinds of publications dealing with language were lists of words and dictionaries. The swift development of international trade treated a demand for dictionaries; bilingual dictionaries of classical and contemporary languages were produced in increasing numbers in the 16th and 17th c.
(Dictionaries of dead languages had appeared before that time: glosses to Latin religious works, made since OE were later combined into dictionaries; in 1499 the printers published the first English-Latin Dictionary.)
The earliest dictionaries of the English language were selective lists of difficult words. In those days the most common English words were difficult to write, whereas the learned one's, usually Latin borrowings, which abounded in the writings of the Renaissance, were not only hard to spell but also hard to understand.
To cope with this difficulty, the first English-English explanatory dictionaries were compiled. Robert Cawdrey's TABLE ALPHABETIC ALL CONTEYNING AND TEACHING THE TRUE WRITING, AND UNDERSTANDING OF HARD USUAL ENGLISH WORDS, BORROWED FROM THE HEBREW, GREEK, LATIN OR FRENCHETC. issued in 1504, is one of the early publications of this kind. Cawdrey's dictionary was quite small, containing about three thousand words. A slightly larger book was produced by John Bullokar in 1615, ENGLISH EXPOSITOR TEACHING THE INTERPRETATION OF THE HARDEST WORDS USED IN OUR LANGUAGE where he attempted to explain " scholastic" words. The first book entitled ENGLISH-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, a small volume compiled by Henry Cockeram, appeared in 1623: it contained explanations of common " hard" words, of " vulgar" words defined with the help of their bookish equivalents, and stray bits of curious information about " Gods and Goddesses, ... Boyes and Maides, ... Monsters and Serpents, ... Dogges, Fishes, and the like".
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