Small Latin and less Greek: A WhanThatAprilleDay pop-up exhibit

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Small Latin and less Greek: A #WhanThatAprilleDay pop-up exhibition at the Folger took place on April 2, 2019, from 1-4 pm. It was curated by Sara Schliep, the third Nadia Sophie Seiler Rare Materials Resident at the Folger. The exhibit was curated to celebrate the fifth annual #WhanThatAprilleDay, a Twitter holiday begun by Chaucer Doth Tweet (@LeVostreGC) to celebrate “oold, middel, ancient, and archaique” languages and remind “folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studying the wordes of the past”.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw an influx of between 10,000 and 25,000 words enter the English language.[1] These words—especially Latin and Greek legal, technical, and medical terms—were directly borrowed from foreign languages, or were newly coined (invented) by writers. Long words used or coined by scholarly writers soon became known as “inkhorn terms” or “inkhornisms.” They were viewed by many with scorn, taking on connotations of learned pedantry, and sparked what became known as the Inkhorn Controversy. (The term derives from the early ink containers made of animal horn and the notion that these lengthy words used up more ink than their shorter, Saxon-rooted English counterparts; compare the Latin conflagration and the English fire.)

Within the Inkhorn Controversy, there were those who supported borrowings and coinages. These Neologizers believed this would enrich the English language, which during the Tudor period was considered ‘rude’ and ‘barbarous,’ lacking the appropriate words to express learned ideas. On the other side of the Controversy were the Purists who disparaged the abuse and excess to which many of the Neologizers had gone. Some Purists even went so far as to condemn foreign borrowings and invent compounds from Saxon words. Their reasoning was that since English words consisted of a single syllable, several could be joined together and would be relatively self-evident in meaning as opposed to foreign, polysyllabic inkhorn terms. This notion of a "pure" English language was also advanced by the Archaizers (a subset of the Purists), who believed that using archaic words in literature carried the weight of antiquity and authority with them.

Small Latin and Less Greek brought together many of the writers and texts involved in the Inkhorn Controversy, illustrating not only the various early modern opinions about the English language but also showcasing some of the inkiest words penned in early modern England.

The exhibition catalog, the flyer, and inkhorn word search are available for download as PDFs.

Items included

1) Geoffrey Chaucer. Whan that Apprill with his shouris sote and the droughte of marche hath p[er]cid þe rote... [Westminster]: [William Caxton], [1477]. Folger STC 5082. Selected images available in the Folger Digtial Image Collection [1].

  • This first edition (1 of 10 still in existence) of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was printed by William Caxton within a year of his establishing the first printing press in England—an event often associated with the start of the early modern period. While they are well-known for their roles in English literary history, Chaucer and Caxton spent time abroad and lived in an increasingly polyglot London, where French, Latin, English, Dutch, and other languages co-mingled in legal, literary, business, and personal networks. The Canterbury Tales exhibits many elements of such exchange and helped to popularize English-language literature. It is also the written source for many new words, such as army, magic, funeral, obstacle, strange, cinnamon, femininity, village, digestion, information, textual, crude, mystery, and annoyance. We can thank the Wife of Bath’s Tale (the beginning of which is displayed here today) for the words vacation, peace, disfigure, inclination, stubborn, and chose.



<references> [1]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Blank, Paula. Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings (New York: Routledge, 1996), 18.