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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 11. Elizabethan English as a literary medium

Some of the main points in the development of the language during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have now been touched upon: namely, the evolution and development of a standard literary dialect, the rapid extension of the vocabulary and the completion of the change from an inflected to an uninflected character. It now remains to attempt an estimate of Elizabethan English as a literary medium, so far as such an estimate is possible.

In the first place, the language, at this date, was in an eminently plastic condition, which made the utmost freedom of expression possible. Men wrote very much as they spoke; the literary language has probably never stood nearer to the colloquial, and, consequently, it was peculiarly adpated to express the exuberant thought and feeling of the age.

But, while this freedom gave to Elizabethan utterance a naturalness and a force which have never been surpassed, it also led to numerous structural anomalies, frequent and even natural in ordinary speech. Literary expression was now less hampered than ever by inflectional considerations, and writers, not cognisant as yet of the logic which was to underlie the new grammar, indulged in expressions which set rules of concord at defiance. Thus, the form of a verb might be determined by the character of the nearest substantive, or two constructions might be confused and merged into one: almost any arrangement seemed justified, provided the sense were reasonably well conveyed. And this irregularity, the inevitable concomitant of Elizabethan freedom of expression, is, also, one of its disabilities, for it introduced an element of vagueness and ambiguity into contemporary writing. But such irregularity was not wholly due to the influence of colloquial speech: it could arise out of the undeveloped condition of the grammatical machinery then in existence. The conjunctions often gave but slight indications of the relation of the sentences which they joined: a word like “but” would have to convey numerous meanings and would be represented in modern English by “if not,” “except,” “when,” “that,” “without that.” Prepositions, too, were used in a manner far from definite: “in” and “on,” “of” and “from,” “with” and “by,” were yet to be distinguished, while “for” would have to do duty for the phrases “as regards,” “in spite of,” “for want of.” Then, again, the subjective and objective genitives were not clearly distinguished; a phrase like “your injuries” had to stand for either, and the same indefiniteness occurs in such phrases as “distressful bread” (bread hardly-won) and “feeling sorrows” (sorrows deeply felt). The context, in each case, had to correct what was ambiguous in the expression and to supply its actual meaning.

Some efforts, were, of course, made to obtain greater clearness and precision, for the uninflected language was beginning to work out its expression under the new conditions. For instance, the neuter form “its,” which aimed at avoiding the confusion caused by the older use of “his,” for both masculine and neuter, occurs as early as 1598, though it was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that it was fully recognised. The suffix “self” was used more frequently to indicate reflexives, and a pronoun would often be inserted to help out an expression. But, generally speaking, clearness was not always the first aim, and, as often as not, writers were content with an expression which sacrificed precision to brevity and pregnancy of utterance.

With all its tendencies to run into confused expression, Elizabethan English was, however, pre-eminently the language of feeling, and it was such in virtue of its concrete and picturesque character and its various devices for increasing vividness of presentment. In the first place, it contained precisely the material for expressing thought with a concreteness and a force not since possible. Comparatively poor in abstract and learned words, though these were being rapidly acquired, it abounded in words which had a physical signification, and which conveyed their meaning with splendid strength and simplicity. And this accounts for the felicitous diction of the Bible translations. The Hebrew narratives were made up of simple concrete terms and objective facts, and the English of that time, from its very constitution, reproduced these elements with a success that would have been impossible for the more highly developed idiom of later times. Between the Hebrew idiom and that of the Elizabethan, in short, there existed certain clear affinites, which Tindale had fully appreciated.

Then, again, this absence of general and abstract terms gave to Elizabethan English a picturequeness all its own. The description of the Psalmist’s despair as a “sinking in deep mire,” or a “coming into deep waters,” is paralleled in character on almost every page of Elizabethan work; and it was this abundance of figurative language which favoured Euphuism, and which constituted something of the later charms of Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne. Nor can the effect of a number of picturesque intensives be overlooked, as seen in the phrases “clean starved,” “passing strange,” “shredly vexed” and “to strike home.” The discarding of these intensives and the substitution of eighteenth century forms like “vastly” and “prodigiously,” and the nineteenth century “very” and “quite,” have resulted in a distinct loss of vigour and colour.

Further, the Elizabethan writer had at his command certain means for heightening the emotional character of a passage and for increasing the vividness of presentment. Thus, the discriminating use of “thou” and “you” could depict a variety of feeling in a way, and with a subtlety, no longer possible. “You” was the unimpassioned form which prevailed in ordinary speech among the educated classes, whereas “thou” could express numerous emotions such as anger, contempt, familiarity, superiority, or love. The ethical dative, too, added to the vividness of expression, suggesting, as it did, the interest felt by either the speaker or the hearer; while even the illogical double negatives and double comparatives were capable of producing a heightening effect in the language of passion.