Reforms of English Language During Eighteenth Century–Essay

Anyone who knows what language is and how it operates can say these days that it was really naive on the part of so many eighteenth century scholars to ask for English, a living language, to be fixed for ever. So one often wonders why these scholars made such a strong demand for fixing and stabilizing the English language.

Those who wanted English to be fixed for ever, Dryden, Swift, and Sheridan, for example, were all writers of eminence. All these writers were, individually and collectively, victims of a fear psychosis, however.

They knew how radically the English language had changed from the Old English period to the Middle English period and how again it had changed drastically from the Middle English period to the Modern English period.

Even a casual look at an Old English text will show that the difference between Old English and Modern English is as great as the difference between Sanskrit and modern Indian languages or the difference between Latin and Italian.

The difference between Old English and Modern English is, in other words, as important as the difference between two languages of the same language family mutually unintelligible to each other.

Eighteenth century scholars had the fear, therefore, that if the English language once again changed as drastically as it had changed from the Old English period to the Eighteenth century, their writings would not be read and understood by future generation of English speakers.

In his Essay on Criticism, Pope expressed this very fear when he said, “And as such Chaucer is, shall Dryden be”. It was this very fear that the Earl of Chesterfield expressed when he said the following:

Suffer not our Shakespeare and our Milton to become two or three centuries hence what Chaucer is at present, the study of only a few pouring antiquarians, and in an age or two more the victims of bookworms.

The Dissenting Voices:

There were a number of dissenting voices heard from time to time. Horace had said a long time ago that “use is the sole arbiter and norm of speech” and, following Horace, Jonson declared “custom” to be “the most certain mistress of language”.

Similarly, Wallis raised a voice of protest against the view that the English language should follow the model of Latin. In this connection he said the following:

They all forced English too rigidly into the mould of Latin … giving many useless rules … which have no bearing on our language, and which confuse and obscure matters instead of elucidating them.

The eighteenth century stalwarts who affirmed the doctrine of usage in very clear and categorical terms were Joseph Priestley, George Campbell and Lord Chesterfield. In his Rudiments of English Grammar (1761), Priestley made the following observation:

… the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language … this is sufficient to establish a rule, even contrary to the strongest analogies of the language with itself.

In his Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell affirmed Priestley’s point of view and said the following:

Language is purely a species of fashion … It is no other than a collection of general observations methodically digested … the grammarian’s only business is to note, collect, and methodise them.

In this connection Lord Chesterfield said the following:

Every language has its peculiarities; they are established by usage, and whether right or wrong, they must be complied with.

These occasional voices of dissent were, however, lost in the loud and repeated demand for fixing the language. They anticipated the doctrine of usage advocated by twentieth century linguists but, being ahead of their time, they remained more or less unheard like a cry in the wilderness.

Campbell, one of the main advocates of the doctrine of usage during that period, was, for example, not consistently loyal to his own doctrine. He favoured the doctrine of usage in certain parts of his writings no doubt, but he was notoriously inconsistent in his approach. He said, for example, that in matters of controversy, the final answer could only be “the laws and decisions of the grammarians” and that “this order of subordination ought never, on any account to be reversed”.

He also added that everything that was in wide use was “not on that account worthy to be retained”. In his book on rhetoric he suggested a number of criteria with reference to which certain items could, though approved by use, be declared substandard and had, therefore, to be discarded altogether.

This means that though Campbell agreed that correctness should be defined in terms of usage, he did support the grammarians’ right to legislate certain constructions in use and certain other constructions out of use.

The only eighteenth century stalwart who was strongly and consistently in favour of the doctrine of usage until the end was Joseph Priestley. Joseph Priestley was primarily a chemist and because of his discovery of oxygen he occupied a place of eminence in the scientific community of his age.

But though primarily a chemist, he wrote a great deal on biological sciences, politics, theology and language. His Rudiments of English Grammar (1761) was one of the important books of grammar published during the second half of the eighteenth century.

But being primarily a scientist and not a man of letters, he was unable to influence the linguistic awareness of his age as much as literary stalwarts like Dryden, Pope, Sheridan, Defoe and Swift could. George Campbell was a grammarian but he badly lacked Priestley’s consistency and courage of conviction and as a result he failed to impress the confused and indecisive spirit of his age. Priestley was virtually alone in voicing his dissent to the proposal for fixing the English language.

The dominant characteristic of the eighteenth century was not Priestley’s doctrine of usage but the proposal made by authors like Dryden, Defoe, Sheridan and Swift, and grammarians like Robert Lowth (1710-1787) and Lindley Murray (1745-1826). The contributions of these grammarians will be discussed in some detail later.

The desire for fixing the English language manifested itself in the three different ways mentioned below.

(i) The demand for an academy and the proposal for a dictator

(ii) The writing and compilation of dictionaries

(iii) Writing books of grammar with prescriptive pronouncements

Each of these three will now be discussed here in some detail. The Demand for an Academy

In Italy the famous academy called the Accademia della Crusca was founded in 1582 for regulating the use of Italian. Similarly, the famous society known as the French Academy was founded in France in 1635 to render the French language “pure, eloquent and capable of treating the arts and sciences”.

In the eighteenth century, British scholars also felt the need for a similar academy which could be instrumental in ascertaining and fixing the English language. In his Essay upon Projects published in 1697, Daniel Defoe proposed the establishment of such an academy.

He said that the function of this academy should be to “preside with a sort of judicature over the learning of the age, and have liberty to correct and censure the exorbitance of writers, especially of translators”.

Defoe’s idea was that no new words and constructions should be allowed to be in circulation unless it had the prior approval of this academy and that “it would be as criminal then to coin words as money”.

In 1712, Swift wrote a formal letter to the Lord Treasurer of England, highlighting the need for such an academy. In his letter he suggested that, among other things, the academy should take appropriate steps towards “those gross improprieties, which, however authorized by practice, and grown familiar, ought to be discarded”.

This proposal for an academy to regulate, monitor and control the changes in the English language was very popular among the elite during the first half of the century and had the strong backing of most grammarians, rhetoricians and literary authors.

Towards the end of the century it started losing its appeal, however, Joseph Priestley vehemently opposed the idea of an academy and said that it was “not only unsuitable to the genius of a free nation but in itself ill-calculated to reform and fix a language”.

Language, he said, had a way of taking care of itself and so “it is better to wait the decisions of time, which are slow and sure, than to take those of synods, which are often hasty and injudicious”. Initially, Dr. Johnson supported the proposal for an academy but later he, too, realized that it was futile to try to control the changes in a living language. So, although initially the proposal elicited a great deal of support, it never took off the ground.

The Proposal for a Censor or a Dictator:

From the very beginning some people were sceptical about the desirability of an academy in the British context. Even those who were highly supportive of the proposal for an academy soon realized that even if such an academy was established, it would perhaps never achieve everything that it was expected to achieve.

The academy in Italy had not worked wonders. Nor had the academy in France. There was no sound reason for people to believe, therefore, that such an academy would work wonders in Britain. Some people made alternative proposals, therefore, for fixing and refining the English language. These people had the mistaken notion that perhaps a powerful individual known for his excellence in the field of literary achievements would be able to do everything that an academy was intended to achieve.

They had before them the example of Isaac Newton. Newton had made a great name for himself at a very young age. He became Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge at the age of 27 and remained the president of the Royal Society for twenty-four years.

Because of his discoveries concerning gravitation, calculus, optics, dynamics and the theory of equations, he continued to be a guiding and inspiring force for scientists for decades. Some eighteenth century scholars thought that the English people needed a Newton-like personality in the field of English language and literature to ascertain, fix and refine that language.

It was perhaps with this kind of perspective in view that Lord Chesterfield suggested the name of Dr. Johnson as the person who could be asked to monitor, regulate, fix and refine the English language. The following is what Lord Chesterfield said in this connection.

The time for discrimination seems to be now come. Toleration, adoption and naturalization have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary. But where shall we find them, and at the same time, the obedience due to them? We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in time of confusion and choose a dictator.

Upon this principle I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and arduous post. And I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language to the said Mr. Johnson during the term of his dictatorship..

Similarly, Swift in a letter written to the Tatler suggested that Steele, its editor, should use his authority as a censor and try to remove all the impurities and blemishes from the English language.

First, by argument and fair means, but if these fail, I think you are to make use of your authority as censor, and by an annual index expurgatorious expunge all words and phrases that are offensive to good sense, and condemn those barbarous mutilations of vowels and syllables.

The Proposal for Fixing English by Common Consent:

The idea of the academy never got off the ground though there seemed to be a wide support for it at one time. Nor did the idea of a dictator or a censor really appeal to the democratic sentiment of the British. But they were not at all happy with the idea that language should be left to the whims and caprices of millions of people with their predilections pulling in different directions.

Their view of life had no scope for a chaos and disorderliness. Scientists like Isaac Newton, who discovered the laws of motion, Robert Boyle, who formulated the law concerning the elasticity of gases, and Jonathan Goddard, who made telescopes, had firmly established in the British mind the vision of a universe governed by natural law.

Philosophers like John Locke, whom Stuart Mill later described as the “unquestioned founder of the analytic philosophy of mind”, reinforced that vision and made it the general social outlook. Because of this, eighteenth century scholars wanted to see their language as an extension of that orderly universe.

A certain section of literary scholars started, therefore, a movement for educating taste and creating a mass awareness about codifying rules based on a common consensus. The person who spearheaded that movement was Sheridan. He did firmly believe that there was a great need for codifying the essential laws of the English language and setting up a general standard.

But that work, he thought, had to be done not arbitrarily by an academy or a censor or a dictator but by directly working upon the public through reason and persuasion. The following extract from one of his writings gives a very good summary of his approach:

The result of the researches of rational enquirers must be rules founded upon rational principles, and a general agreement amongst the most judicious must occasion these rules to be generally known, and established, and give them the force of laws. Nor would these laws meet with opposition, or be obeyed with reluctance, in as much as they would not be established by the hand of power, but by common suffrage…

This tendency to educate taste led to the writing of dictionaries and a great many books of grammar.