Both linguistic tendencies had important implications for the
development of the English language and enabled the Elizabethans
to demonstrate its potentialities for great literature. By the
early seventeenth century the “inkhorn controversy” had been
largely resolved and the use of borrowed words generally
vindicated on rhetorical grounds.
The problem, however, was that
people needed to know more about these foreign loan words, which
made English “eloquent” but remained largely unassimilated into
the mainstream of usage. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey, a
school-teacher, published a small volume called
Alphabeticall, designed to teach “the true writing, and
vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the
Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c.”
The dictionary contained
about 2,500 hard words with brief definitions, or as Cawdrey
With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered
for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other
unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better
vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read
in Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse
the same aptly themselues.
The opening page shows clearly that many of the “hard wordes” were
of French origin (marked by Cawdrey with the sign §):
§ Abandon, cast away, or yeelde vp, to leaue, or
§ abbesse, abbatesse, Mistris of a Nunnerie, comforters of
§ abbettors, counsellors.
aberration, a going a stray, or wandering.
§ abbridge, to shorten, or make short.
§ abbut, to lie vnto, or border vpon, as one lands end
meets with another.
abecédarie, the order of the Letters, or hee that vseth
§ abet, to maintaine.
In effect, this was the first English dictionary, which, together
with other glossaries of “hard words” that followed it, attempted to
codify the new layer of vocabulary that now ran parallel to the
layer of “plaine English words.” The native words were used as
glosses in such dictionaries. Also interesting is Cawdrey’s mention
of specific registers in which “hard wordes” were likely to be found
(Scriptures and sermons).
In addition to bringing new words into the language, the emulation
of the classical languages by the Elizabethans had important
implications for the old French element that seemed to have been
well assimilated by then. Sometimes French words, borrowed in earlier
eras, were re-Latinised: Middle English descrive, parfit, verdit,
aventure, avis, Avril, langage, egal became describe,
perfect, verdict, adventure, advice, April, language, equal. Re-Latinisation
was a deliberate attempt to draw these earlier loan words into an
appropriate etymological and functional layer of vocabulary and, in
a sense, to “de-assimilate” them from the native stock, into which
by then they had been long received.
Nevertheless, some of the words
resisted and, though refashioned outwardly, continued to be
pronounced as in Old French or Middle English: e.g. debt, deceipt,
doubt, receipt, subtle, victuals. The attempt may be ridiculed
as pedantic but it was part of the general process of what Thomas
Finkenstaedt has called “etymological dissociation” in language. The
Elizabethans were quick to discover and exploit the stylistic
possibilities that such lexical parallelism offered.