“Jurebassos” and “linguists”: The East India Company and Early Modern English words for ‘interpreter’

From Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2) ed. by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja & Jukka Tyrkkö. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.

Samuli Kaislaniemi
University of Helsinki


The foundation of the English East India Company (EIC) in 1600 led to rapidly increasing contacts between England and South and South-East Asia. International commerce was by nature multilingual, and required the use of interpreters. Yet while these interpreters were increasingly professionals, Early Modern English did not have a general word for the job category interpreter. Instead, a range of near-synonyms existed, some of which had restricted spheres of usage. This led EIC employees in the East to borrow more words for interpreter from Asian languages.

This contribution looks at the different words for interpreter in Early Modern English. First, the Historical Thesaurus of English (HTE) is used to chart the synonyms in the semantic field. Then their definitions in contemporary dictionaries are looked up in the Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME). Next, dictionary evidence is compared to historical usage. The main sources of this study are the correspondence, journals, and other documents written by East India Company servants, 1600–1650. This material is then compared to findings in Early English Books Online (EEBO).

It is found that the different words for interpreter in Early Modern English retain quite distinct spheres of use during the period under study, and no one word is dominant. Indeed, the lexical field is discovered to be flexible enough to allow the new borrowing of a term for interpreter, jurebasso, which is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The lexis of EIC employees is found to differ from the control corpus, and the EIC records are found to be an underused source of linguistic evidence, which can be fruitfully used to gain valuable insights into Early Modern English, particularly in language contact situations.

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Link to paper, available free online (pdf).

See also my addendum to this article: on the history of the word linguist in the sense 'interpreter' (11.9.2015).