Is our language the key to our past?

Dr John Gallagher

Travel, mobility, and migration were instrumental in making Early modern England a multilingual landscape. But when did the English start speaking English and, how confident were early speakers in the scope of this fast-evolving language?

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The end of the sixteenth century was a crucial ‘migration moment’ that changed the makeup of English cities like London and Norwich, and that saw foreign languages like French and Dutch becoming an important part of the urban speechscape. We are used to seeing this period as a linguistic ‘golden age’, but it was actually characterised by intense anxiety and a lack of confidence in the power and capacity of the English language. 

But language and language-learning were crucial to England’s Renaissance and contacts with the wider world. Sources like consistory records from London’s ‘stranger churches’ (where immigrant Protestants worshipped) allow us to reconstruct the social lives (and language) of immigrants in incredible detail. Other great sources like phrasebooks and dictionaries written by and for migrants offer a window on how people communicated and what that meant for newly-arrived refugees in this period.

It’s well documented that even then, language and migration could be causes for conflict, but there are also myriad records of individual migrants who made significant cultural and linguistic contributions.

Looking at some fascinating individual stories, from Giacomo Castelvetro, the salad enthusiast and recipe-writer, to John Florio, a teacher, lexicographer, and translator, Dr John Gallagher brings early modern multi-cultural England to life for The Garden. He also explores what we know about migrants’ everyday lives in this period and what kind of overlap there is between the experience of migrants then and those of today as he answers the question, how did English evolve?

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50 minutes


Evolution of Language

About the Fellow

Dr John Gallagher

John Gallagher is a cultural and social historian of early modern Britain and Europe, with a particular interest in language, migration, and education.

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Evolution of Language Collection

How do languages evolve?  From the origins of language to bilingualism, this series journeys into the mysteries of this uniquely human trait and the power it has to change our world.

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