Archaic Diction: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Archaic Diction
  • 1:35 Romantic Literature
  • 2:31 'Legalese'
  • 3:31 Religious Rites
  • 4:27 Parodic Comedy
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Art thou familiar with the tongues of yore? If you have no idea what that means, this lesson is for you! Learn more about archaic diction and see some common ways it's employed.

Expired Language: Archaic Diction Defined

Have you ever read the works of Shakespeare or maybe an older version of the Bible? Doubtlessly, you encountered a lot of words like 'shalt,' 'maketh,' 'thou,' or 'thine.' If words like these sound old and dusty, that's because they are! Such terms are called archaisms, or examples of archaic diction, which describes words, phrases, or pronunciations that are obsolete or outdated in current usage.

Historically, humans have tended to honor their ancestors. Some of us even value their opinions and ways of doing things above those of the present age. When this happens with language, archaisms occur. The use of archaic diction in practically any medium calls upon this perceived wisdom and authority of our predecessors. This sort of speech or writing asserts that the way our ancestors said things was more accurate, more eloquent, more well-constructed, or just simply better than the way we speak today.

We have considered our forebears the experts on everything from literature to law to religion, so many of these fields are littered with archaic diction. In literary contexts in particular, archaisms may be used to elevate a piece to the standards of previous literary works. However, an archaism could also be employed in literature or even television in order to poke fun at those who consider this sort of language to be preferable. Any way you find it, archaic diction is fairly easy to spot, so let's take a look at some examples to see how well you can identify them!

Examples of Archaic Diction: Romantic Literature

Long before the Romantic period of art and literature reached its height in the early 1800s, words like 'hath,' 'thee,' and 'thy' had died out in common usage. Nonetheless, Romantic poets like John Keats clung to older traditions of language and literature. They did so in an effort to provide their own work with the same literary weight and credibility of authors like Shakespeare and Milton. Nowadays, though, readers 'oft' find this prolific use of archaisms to be cumbersome and tacky. Here's an excerpt from John Keats' poem 'Ode to Autumn:'

'Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep…'

Examples of Archaic Diction: 'Legalese'

If you've ever tried to read a legal brief or statute, you might have needed a law dictionary beside you the whole time. This is because the procedures and language of law, or 'legalese,' are firmly rooted in archaic traditions, many of which owe their origins to ancient Rome. In fact, a good number of these archaisms used by lawyers today are simply Latin terms, such as habeas corpus, inter alia, and subpoena, that are still employed!

Some modern lawyers, however, have become disenchanted with these antiquated niceties and have proposed that legal writers do away with them. One lawyer from Austin, Texas commented on a legal writing blog that words like witnesseth and hereinabove are useless in law, along with the frequently outdated sentence structures that complicate legal matters even further. Some legal terms, such as those ending with the Latin suffix '-trix' to denote females, are even argued to be not only obsolete but also offensive.

Examples of Archaic Diction: Religious Rites

We discussed the Bible before and how certain versions of it are prone to archaic diction. Christianity's primary holy text is not the only place you're likely to find archaisms in the religion, though. Many of the rites and prayers, particularly in Roman Catholicism, are also full of formulaic language that tends to change very little over the centuries.

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