The Inkhorn Controversy

Ever heard of it?  It was the first time in the history of the English language that speakers actively debated over language use, and it was just a part of the language revolution that was taking place in England in the 16th-17th centuries as our language transitioned out of the Middle English period.

The “controversy” arose over the massive influx of new words pouring into English from Latin (and other languages).  Such words–called “inkhorn terms” because they were deliberately introduced into the language, largely by scholars, and were deemed by some to be “pretentious” or “artificial”–drastically increased the lexicon of English, and enabled authors like William Shakespeare to write with all the richness and variety they could muster. 

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, many scholars of the Renaissance believed that such borrowing would “corrupt” the English language, and clog it with unnecessary or unusable words that were merely temporarily fashionable.  And indeed, thousands of inkhorn terms that were introduced during the period have since fallen out of fashion: exsufflicate, for example, which appears in Shakespeare’s Othello, and means “frivolous.”

Other words have hung on, though: we still have impede, but we lost its opposite expede (though its same root remains in expedient).

The truth is all languages change–there’s no such thing as “language corruption,” and great periods of change (like the Renaissance) show our language to be a highly adaptable, highly successful method of communication.  And without the freedom to play with language, to invent new words and new uses, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Marlowe would never have produced what are surely some of the best works ever written in the English language.  And there’s nothing controversial about that.

About areading

Amity Reading is an assistant professor of English at Albion College, where she teaches early British literature (specifically, medieval and Shakespeare). Her research centers on Anglo-Saxon devotional poetry and homilies.
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