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Early Modern Keywords

We study language in history and language as history. We explore what certain words reveal of the cultures and societies that shape them and are, in turn, shaped by them. We seek thereby to offer new perspectives on a formative period of European and global history.

Our project aims to create a vocabulary of the words that shaped the early modern world. It does for early modernity what Raymond Williams did for modernity when, in his landmark study Keywords (1976), he created an interconnected vocabulary of British culture and society. Our work, unlike his, takes a comparative approach and reflects on questions of method. It offers a unique interdisciplinary interface for language-based research in languages; intellectual, cultural, and social history; the history of art; linguistic and literary studies; and politics.

What is an early modern keyword?

New words, borrowed words, old words that change, words that switch users and come to mean different things from before. Words bristling with an energy that bespeaks the concerns and aspirations of an age. Our ‘keywords’ are at once prominent and contested features of early modern European languages. They tend to exist across a range of discursive contexts and act as sites of encounter between different ways of conceiving the world. As they express ways of thinking and being, they change them too and shape the culture and societies we have come to think of as early modern.

Which keywords?

On this project, we take our cue from Raymond Williams’s 1976 publication Keywords, a ground-breaking study of 110 words that shaped post-WWII Britain. For Williams, keywords are ‘significant, binding words’, they are ‘significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought’. Certain of their uses ‘bound together certain ways of seeing culture and society’ while others ‘open up issues and problems … of which we all need to be very much more conscious' (Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana Press, 1988), p. 15).

Our keywords are chosen because they make us more conscious of how early moderns saw their own culture and society, of the issues and problems they faced and of how they approached them. Our vocabulary emerges from a set of questions that include: Which languages should be included and why? Which words help us resist the temptation to focus unduly on the language of the elites? How do written words differ from spoken words? Is our vocabulary composed of nouns? Can verbs, adjectives, and the rest not be ‘key’? How do we understand the translatability or otherwise of the words we study? Concerns like these have been at the core of the research carried out by EMK contributors and continue to underpin the compilation of the vocabulary.

How to study early modern keywords?

Williams’s methodology in Keywords needs to be adapted for use in our project. First, the early modern period is both longer and more distant in time than the post-war period surveyed by Williams. Early modern keywords are therefore likely to have undergone more evolution than their post-WWII counterparts, taking on meanings and connotations that may appear entirely alien to the modern reader, or – in some cases – having fallen out of use entirely. Second, Williams’s study was largely confined to the English language, whereas our project places special emphasis on correspondences between the major languages of early modern Europe.

Our approach combines Williams’ historical semantics with the principles, laid down by Edward Said (2004), of reception and resistance. We aim to be receptive to the contexts in which early modern keywords rose to prominence, but – in contrast to more supposedly ‘neutral’ forms of philological study – we also offer, in our choice of keywords and our analyses of these, a measure of resistance: to historical actors, when they seek to impose their meanings on a word and to erase the meanings of others; to existing historiography, when it attempts to clear away the web of complexity surrounding a word and thereby damages the object it claims to be finding; and to our modern world, when it takes the modernity of its words and meanings as read.