The effect of the Renaissance on the ENglish language. By English with Stephen

Reasons for English: English during the Renaissance

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about words and phrases that are inspired by Julius Ceasar.

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Hello everyone and welcome! My name is Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today I have a Reasons for English episode. In Reasons for English, I try to tell stories that explain why English is the way it is. And today, I am going to talk about English during the Renaissance.

There is no specific date for the start and the end of the Renaissance, and it depends on which country you are talking about. In England, the Renaissance is from the early 1500s until around 1650. In this episode, I will start by describing the Renaissance and explaining why it was so important, before looking at the huge effect it had on English.

Spoiler alert: most of the effect is on the vocabulary of the language.

After this…

Normally, at this point in my podcast, I like to tell you about another podcast you could listen to. Today, I am going to let another podcaster tell you himself.

Ok, so what was the Renaissance?

Let’s start with a definition. The word comes originally from Latin and means “rebirth”, or “to be born again”. This definition gives us a good idea of what was happening in Europe at this time because it was being reborn.

The idea is that, when the Roman empire fell apart, Europe fell into the Dark Ages. It was a time of war, plague and a retreat from science and reason. In Italy, in the 1400s, art, science and philosophy started to return to life.

So it was a time of great change in all parts of society. Scientific research led to the creation of new ideas about how the world worked.

Copernicus realised that planet Earth is not the centre of the universe. Newton figured out why apples kept falling on his head. Galileo helped us to tell the time with his clocks.

Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa (and a lot else besides), Michelangelo redecorated the Sistine Chapel and Raphael got into Madonna in a big way.

Shakespeare wrote some decent stories, Machiavelli gave every evil politician a blueprint for success and Don Quixote started attacking windmills.

European countries soon started to explore, and exploit Africa, Asia and the Americas. Nation states, such as England, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal centralise their power structures in order to take advantage of the situation.

The Renaissance started in Italy and arrived in England much later. This didn’t stop it from having a considerable effect on the English language once it did arrive, and it was nearly all based on the vocabulary of the language.

For example, the new concepts and inventions coming from Europe at this time had no words to describe them in English. New words were needed for new ideas. This is the time when lots of words enter the language from Latin, for example, thermometer, lexicon, and atmosphere.

But it wasn’t just Latin and Greek that gave words to English. Lots of words came from French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. A lot of the time, words originated in another language and came to English via Spanish or Portuguese. For example, banana, potato, and tobacco were all ‘discovered’ by the Spanish or Portuguese when they colonised the new world. As they took the local plants from their new lands, they also took the local names. These names eventually found their way into English.

But it wasn’t just new words coming into the language. Some words were translated from Latin, while other traditional English words took on new meanings.

But the way these words acquired new meanings also changed. We start to see new ways of creating words. There were new prefixes and suffixes that were attached to other words, as well as adding two words together, for example taking the word ‘French’ and adding ‘woman’ to make ‘Frenchwoman’.

There was also an increasing trend to convert words from one form to another. Shakespeare has a lot of fun changing nouns into verbs and vice versa, but this was going on in the wider English-speaking community as well.

This is not to say that these changes were always welcome. All through history, when language changes there are guaranteed to be some people who complain about a change in standards and how it is going to be the end of society. And Renaissance England was no different in that respect.

But as nearly always happens in these situations, the people who wanted to protect the language by refusing to change, lost the argument. The language changed with the times and evolved into modern English.

As I mentioned in a previous episode, the printing press was also spreading during this time. One of the results of this spread was the standardisation of English. As more and more books were written, there was a need to agree on one way of spelling the language. While this was initially limited to the way English was written, it would eventually influence the way it was spoken as well.

Another result of the printing press was the increase in written material available at a low cost. Having access to a lot of cheap texts meant there was also an explosion in education with an increased motivation to learn to read and write. By the end of the Renaissance, it was not just priests and the extremely rich who could read and write, but also the middle classes.

And it is in the field of education that we see a very specific change take place in terms of the status of English. At the beginning of the Renaissance, English was not the language of education. If you wanted to study philosophy or law or the sciences, you probably did it in Latin or Greek. However, by the end of the Renaissance, most study was done in English. English had finally arrived on the world stage as a language that could be used to express anything.

And it would go from strength to strength.

Before we finish for today, remember to check out the Song Surfer podcast. You can find a link on my site, Also on my site, you can find a transcript for this episode as well as links to all the previous episodes in this podcast. It is also the place to go for links to my social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, as well as the place where you can leave comments on this and other episodes. Just a reminder, the address is, that’s S T E P H E N,

Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

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