Category Archives: Language and History with Seán Thomas Kane

People of the Renaissance: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

Of all the great writers of the sixteenth century Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the most prolific. Born in the Burgundian Netherlands in 1466, Erasmus came to be known across Europe as one of the greatest minds of his time. Widely considered to be the father of Christian Humanism, Erasmus made close friendships and contacts with a variety of humanist intellectuals, clerics, and politicians in his day.

Now here in the United States, outside of academic circles Erasmus far less well known than he is in Europe. Here he is overshadowed by people like Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Leonardo, and Sir Thomas More. It was actually through Sir Thomas More that I came to know about Erasmus. More and Erasmus were widely considered to be best friends, and Erasmus stayed on a number of occasions for months at a time in the More house in London. For all of his intelligence and prowess as a speaker of Dutch, German, Latin, and Greek, Erasmus refused to learn English, and as such when More was out of the house at work, Erasmus would be left with More’s family who at first didn’t speak Latin. 

According a story told in John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, a link to which can be found in the description below, Erasmus was so annoyed waiting for Thomas More to come home from work that he wrote his book The Praise of Folly, in Latin the Moriae Encomium, whose title was a pun on the More family name. This book, written in a time of intense boredom became a best seller in its time and contributed to Erasmus’s fame across Europe.

Erasmus’s life corresponded to the invention and spread of the printing press across Europe from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in Strasbourg, in what is today France. Many of Erasmus’s books survive in their original sixteenth century printed editions, which can today be found in libraries and archives around the globe. Many are even available online as digitised PDFs that can be downloaded and read anywhere. Erasmus is especially famous for working with the Swiss printer Johann Froben, whose printshop in Basel produced some of the finest surviving early editions of Erasmus’s works.

One of Erasmus’s greatest accomplishments is his updated Latin translation of the New Testament, the second half of the Christian Bible. Being one of the greatest scholars of Ancient Greek in his day in Western Europe, Erasmus took some of the oldest and most genuine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and brought them together into one solid Greek text, which Froben then printed side-by-side with Erasmus’s new Latin translation. Erasmus intended to help enrich the spiritual lives of Western Christians who, at the time of its publication in 1516, still used the Latin Vulgate Bible translated in the fifth century CE by St. Jerome. Yet his New Testament caused controversy in his day, and was one of the reasons that most of Erasmus’s works were banned by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation that began in the late-sixteenth century.

For all his talents, Erasmus was not known for being the most sociable man. He hated dancing, was a hypochondriac, and his letters are filled with his grumblings about this thing or that. Nevertheless, Erasmus took time to respond to those friends for whom he held affection, such as Sir Thomas More and his children, or to the English scholar John Colet.

Erasmus died in July 1536 in Basel after falling ill from dysentery. He was buried in Basel Minster, and while his body faded away, his memory lived on in the many scholars across Europe and in the Americas who he influenced. Today in 2018, the University of Toronto Press has published 86 volumes of Erasmus’s collected works, including the thousands of known letters that he wrote to correspondents as grand as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and as humble as Margaret Roper, the talented English humanist and daughter of Erasmus’s best friend Sir Thomas More.


What was Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanism was a philosophical tradition that came out of the reemergence of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy initially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Florence, that then spread out across Western Europe, impacting the philosophical, theological, and in some cases political outlook of intellectuals and scholars across Europe and in the overseas European colonies during the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century.

Humanism largely drew inspiration from the writings of Plato, a new turn in the long history of contention between Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy. Prior to the rise of Humanism, a number of Aristotelian philosophical traditions including Scholasticism were prevalent in Europe’s universities, based especially at the University of Paris. Humanism was as much a reaction to the complexities of Scholasticism as it was an attempt to renew the philosophical traditions of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Humanism in Italy largely drew on this pre-Christian Greek and Roman literary tradition, turning to ancient authors like Plato, Cicero, and Virgil for inspiration. Italian Humanism did not consider connecting and implementing Humanism in a religious setting to be quite as an imperative, instead seeing Humanism itself as a guide to good, virtuous living. Nevertheless, these same Humanist currents found their way into works of political realism like Machiavelli’s The Prince, which in a very humanist manner cites pre-Christian examples of good princes alongside their Christian counterparts.

In Northern Europe, Humanism took a different turn. There Humanism was most greatly impacted by the works of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who created a variant of Humanism distinct from that discussed in Italy, that has become known as Christian Humanism. Christian Humanism intended to merge the lessons of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with the morals and teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity, what today is Roman Catholicism, in an effort to promote a new understanding of what made for a good, virtuous, life.

Erasmus’s Christian Humanism was particularly well received in England, where early English humanists like John Colet and William Grocyn introduced it to the centres of English learning at Oxford and Cambridge. They in turn taught a young Thomas More to read and write Greek. Today More is widely considered to be the most prolific English humanist of the sixteenth century. Through the letters of both Erasmus and More, as well as many other Humanists, we can see how they saw their own world, and what they wanted to accomplish with their new philosophical tradition, which today we call Renaissance Humanism.

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is one of those terms that is commonly known but its meaning is not necessarily as ubiquitous. The word Renaissance comes from renaissance, which itself comes from the verb renaître, meaning to be “reborn”. Thus, Renaissance refers to a cultural rebirth. There have been many renaissances throughout history, from the artistic, literary, and musical powerhouse of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, and the Carolingian Renaissance that saw the revival of ancient learning in the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, modern Germany, to the renaissance that my adopted city, Kansas City, is experiencing today.

]The Renaissance that I’m talking about was the originator of the term, the period between the late fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century in Western Europe. It was a time when the pre-Christian knowledge and writings of ancient Greece and Rome, long considered lost began to be reintroduced into Western and Central European society. These works came both from the Eastern Mediterranean, with the influx of Greek scholars into Italy, especially to Florence, after the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and from old monastic libraries, long locked away and forgotten.

During the Renaissance, scholars rediscovered and began to study and write about such classical authors as Lucretius, who proposed the existence of the atom in his work On the Nature of Thingsin the first century BCE. The Renaissance also saw the adaptation of the works of the Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose models have been used ever since.

While the Renaissance started in Italy and is most famous for the exploits of the Italian artists, writers, and musicians of the period, it spread northward across the Alps into the rest of Europe, changing the cultural landscape of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the modern Netherlands and Belgium, Dernmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, as well as England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Some of the greatest Renaissance artists whose work is still admired today include Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo, Bruni, Holbein, and Drürer. The Renaissance also saw the creation of a number of great works of literature, from Machiavelli’s The Prince, to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and Rabelais’sGargantua and Pantagruel.

The period saw great progress in Europe in the sciences as well, with the first modern works of natural history such as Gesner’s Gart der Gesundheit and Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body, an astoundingly accurate book on human anatomy. At the same time Tycho Brahe and Nicolas Copernicus making great advances in astronomy, determining the place of Earth in the Solar System and, in the case of Copernicus, coming to the conclusion through a though experiment that the Solar System was heliocentric, thus that everything revolved about the Sun, rather than geocentric as had previously been thought.

The Renaissance also saw the beginning of the European explorations to the far ends of the planet, with men like Columbus becoming the first European since Leif Eriksson to set foot in the Americas, and Magellan the commander of a fleet that became the first to circumnavigate the globe. On a less sunny side, the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the European colonial conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of south and southeast Asia.

This is the period in history that I’ve chosen to study, I find the social changes during the Renaissance to be particularly fascinating. Today we can learn a great deal from the Renaissance as we undergo a similar period of change, in some ways turning away from the ideals and values first put in place by these “new thinkers” and through this “rebirth” of classical Greek and Roman culture over five hundred years ago now.

What is History?

I’ve been studying history for quite some time now. In undergraduate I was initially a triple major in History, Philosophy, and Theology, and in my current graduate work I am close to earning my Master’s in History. As a result, the question has come up time and again, what is it that I’m actually doing? What is history, and what does it mean to study history?

When I started seriously in this field as an undergraduate, I came up with a straightforward answer to this question that was entirely based on time. History, I said, is the study of humanity between the invention of writing and exactly one hundred years before the present. It made sense to me to place a limit on history closer to the present, because I found it difficult to accept that people that I knew in my own lifetime could be studied in history just like someone who lived two thousand years ago.

This method worked fairly well for me, considering that I never seriously wanted to study anything more recent than about 1870, and generally stuck to Ancient Rome, Medieval England, the Renaissance, or Colonial America. Why worry about the twentieth century when it wasn’t what I studied?

Yet as I started my most recent master’s programme, I came to a new conclusion for what can be classified as history. You see, the tricky thing is that if we define the start of history as being the start of writing, then that must differ on a timeline depending on the culture. After all, while I generally only wanted to make a career out of studying people who lived at least four or five hundred years ago, by my own calculations history began for my paternal ancestors when the first written records of their lives appear in the 1790s.

But if I’m considering only those documents written by the people themselves then there’s another catch, because the Irish Censuses from the turn of the twentieth century show my Keane second great-grandparents as illiterate, making the scale of my family’s history written by members of my family rather short, if not non-existent per my century-based calculation as my great-grandfather was born just over 125 years ago at the time of recording.

So, how to compensate for this complication? As I thought about this, in between papers in the Fall of 2017 I came across a new definition of history, one that made more sense in the extremely complex tapestry that is humanity. Today, I see History as the study of the human past through the methods and tools used by the historian as developed since the turn of the nineteenth century.

These methods, based off of the similar philosophies thought up at the same time, and inspired by the new scientific method help make History a method of studying and understanding the human past that can be adapted to different cultures and societies around the globe. The biggest remnant from my old definition of History that survives in this one is that History relies entirely upon the written word. If a society does not have writing then the study of that society’s past should be left to experts in studying the human past through their material remains, i.e. archaeologists.

Thus, someone who died fifty years ago like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy are just as historical as someone who died millennia ago like Queen Nefertiti or Zhuge Liang.

But what do you think? How do you define history? And which historical period or figure do you like the most?

Latin in Modern English

English is a fascinating language in that it has had so many influences, and has adopted a great number of forms and styles from other languages in the 1500 years that it has existed. While English is a West Germanic language, and at its heart English has many Germanic features, it has also been so heavily influenced by the Romance languages, especially Latin and French, that some have called English a hybrid Germanic-Romance language.

Latin has been one of the strongest influencers of English, through both Latin’s role as the liturgical language of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages and today in the Catholic Church, as well as Latin’s role as the language of the Roman Empire, whose presence can still be felt across the Mediterranean and in Western Europe where it once ruled.

Today many Latin words have been adopted into English, from viaand campusto Latinate English words like canineand feminine. If we were to use purely Germanic-rooted words instead of canineand femininewe might say doglike and womanly, words that don’t have quite the same scientific or proper sound as their Latinate alternatives. For many Latinate words in English, we give them the same old -splural ending that is standard in this language. Yet even that comes originally from Latin, via French. Though with some words like campuseswe tend to tack on the English plural ending, despite the s already being there.

Then there is a whole class of irregular Latinate nouns that have come into English but, for whatever reason, kept their original Latin endings. Words like the originally Greek hippopotamus which, after being adapted by Latin, is as an English plural becomes hippopotami. I’ve noticed that many of these Latin words that kept their Latin forms in English tend in Latin to be either masculine or neuter, and very rarely feminine. It’s not often that you’ll hear someone refer to a group of orchestrasas orchestrae, but more common to hear a group of curriculums referred to as curricula, as is proper in more formal English and in Latin. So, if we stick with these rules then professional baseball is played not in stadiums but in stadia.

These forms have been around for quite some time, but in general they aren’t taught. I only realised they were there after studying Latin and Ancient Greek while writing a master’s thesis about Irish language curricula. For many people the plural has become the singular, so it’s often forgotten that the singular of criteriais criterionand that in very formal, and admittedly almost unused speech the plural of museumis musea. Even my spellcheck didn’t like that last one.

Whether we like it or not, there is a great deal of Latin in English today. We may not necessarily follow all of the Latin patterns and rules that have, over the centuries, been adopted into English, but they’re still there nevertheless. And personally, I like these, they add an extra bit of flavour to my writing.

Do you follow these rules, or do they seem outdated and out of place in English? Is English too complicated and irregular? And for those of you learning English, how do English plurals mirror or differ from those of your language.

You Guys and Y’all


English has many features that make it a complicated language to learn, from its irregular spelling to its multitude of variations in grammar, dialect, and pronunciation. One area that English is especially confusing in is in its second person pronoun, you, which officially only has the one form. You is both singular and plural, formal and informal, though the scale of formality is beginning to change, with the introduction of yaas a second person singular informal pronoun. For more on that, watch my last video, which discusses youand ya.

Now the lack of differentiation between singular and plural youcan be awfully confusing for most English speakers. This language requires the use of names or titles to make it clear who the speaker is referring to. I might say, “Could you tell me how to get to Gordon Square?” and if I’m with a number of friends or relatives it won’t necessarily be clear a.) who I’m speaking to and b.) if I’m speaking to one person or to multiple people. For someone like me who has often found using personal names to be a bit too direct, and thus borderline rude, this ambiguity in pronouns makes English all the more difficult.

Different English dialects have determined their own resolutions to this problem. In some parts of Britain, the plural youbecomes you lot, while the older second person plural pronoun yeis still occasionally used in some places. Here in the United States, this country is largely split into three camps: those who use you, those who use you guys, and those who use y’all. Now I’m from the Midwest, and I’ve always said you guys, it’s just how the pronoun has developed. In this instance, guy is a lot like the word men, in that it has both a masculine and a neuter meaning.

You see, at one point in English the word menwas actually two words: the plural of manand the name of the human species as a whole. Today that second version ofmenand its variant mankind has mostly been overtaken by the more observably gender-neutral humanand humanity. This is a change that reflects the social changes in our society, with the rise of gender equality in English-speaking countries like the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. Granted, there’s still a very long way to go to reach true, proper, gender equality, but we’re on that road.

The word guy has a similar dual meaning. It’s both an informal way of saying manand has, at least in the U.S., developed a gender-neutral meaning as an informal way of saying people. Now the word guy comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who tried to blow up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot, an event that’s commemorated in the U.K. every 5th November. So, unlike most English pronouns which are of Germanic origin, guycomes from a personal name, which is actually a variation on the Italian Guido. To me, in saying you guysit’s a gender-neutral phrase.

Granted, that’s not how everyone sees it. In an April 2017 edition of the podcast Midwesternishproduced by KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City, the hosts argued that you guysis gendered and too masculine to be used as a generic second person plural pronoun. Instead, they proposed using the Southern American y’allas an alternative. Now, grammatically I can see how this makes sense, but I whole heartedly disagree. To me, as much as y’allmay not be as confusable with any gendered language, it nevertheless is tainted by history. To me, y’allreminds me of the racism, discrimination, and fear that has permeated the American South since the colonial era. It’s a Southern phenomenon that I don’t want to use. And while to me you guys doesn’t sound inherently masculine, considering English’s complicated way of making gendered nouns be spelled and pronounced the same as non-gendered ones, I can understand how to some it might appear misogynistic to call a group of people that include women guys.

So, what’s an alternative? Unless we decide to go back to the old plural ye, which has been thoroughly ridiculed through centuries of hear ye’s, it’s probably best for the moment to just use youand stick with that. Then again, there’s always the Norman French inspired plural sin English, which this language didn’t originally have, so maybe we should just say youse

“You and Ya”: the Return of Informal vs. Formal Pronouns in English

English is an awfully tricky language, it has had so many influences and developed so many dialects and variations over the millennium and a half that it has existed that are not just influenced by geography, society, economics, or religion, but a big mix of all four and many more. My English can be officially designated as Inland Northern American English, which roughly corresponds to the Great Lakes region going west to the Dakotas and somewhat south to cities like St. Louis and Kansas City where it runs headlong into Midland American English and Southern American English.

Yet my English also has been heavily influenced by a somewhat sizeable list of other European languages, brought to my home region, the Midwest, by generations of immigrants including my own ancestors, whether it be the slightly more Minnesota/Wisconsin/Ontario “o” sound that I use in “Go,” and “Sorry” which I’ve noticed sounds awfully similar to the Swedish “å”, while the addition of a “y” sound in any word starting with a hard consonant followed by an “a” or an “e” such as in “cart”, which I heard in Cardiff, Wales, though I’ve read that it may also come from the Dutch spoken in New Netherland (modern New York) in the seventeenth century. Then there’s the more recent influences, from my loving adoption of the odd Yiddish curse word, especially “schmuck” to how I was told that I inadvertently use the word “utilise” more ever since I started learning French (“utiliser” is French for “use”).

One especially confusing thing about English is the second person pronoun, of which there’s only one: you. It’s not like French which has “tu” for singular and informal and “vous” for plural and formal, or Irish which has “tú” and “síbh” for the singular and plural respectively. We used to have more variety in second person pronoun in English. I study the early sixteenth century, and spend my working days reading manuscripts and books written in Early Modern English. Back then, English had “thou” (sometimes spelled thow) for the singular informal, “you” (sometimes spelled “yow”) for the singular formal, and “ye” for the plural. At that time English was written phonetically, so “thou” and “you” were both pronounced with the same ending vowel as we use in “you” today. Yet by the American Revolution, “thou” had largely disappeared from common use in English, surviving most recognisably in the Church of England and through older poets and authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer.

So, today, we have “you”, and only “you”. It’s singular and plural, formal and informal. In academic writing, especially as a historian, we’re strongly advised to avoid using “you” as well as the first person pronouns “I” and “we”. Academic writing is about the most formal form of English today. By using only the third person “he,” “she,” and “it” it is impersonal and distant from the reader. This is one element of the attempt amongst us historians at being objective.

Despite all the certainty that there is only one “you” in English, I’ve noticed this starting to change. “You” is gaining an informal variant again, only this time it is not the now antiquated “thou”. Rather, the frequently used “ya” seems to be gaining traction as an informal version of “you”, one that we can use with our families and friends, but one that I wouldn’t use with a boss, professor, or other official. I’ll often hear people greet their friends with “Hey, how are ya doing?” or even more informally “Hey, how’ya doin?” or when asking for input on something, “Hey, what do ya think about this?”

So, is this a permanent change in English? Will generations future learn in their English classes that they must use “you” with their teachers and “ya” with their friends? Or will “ya” fade away like “thou” and “ye” have gone before it? Granted, while this is primarily an American English phenomenon, with the advent of the Internet and with how much easier it is getting to travel internationally, “ya” could spread across the English-speaking world. An American export like “jazz,” “baseball,” and “barbecue.”

But what do you think? Do you use “you” in all cases? Is there a different type of “you” that you use in your own dialect of English? And if you are learning English, or speak another language as your first language, how do English pronouns differ from those of your own language? And does your native language influence your English?