The Latin Prototype

What we might learn from this concern for the present state of English in the seventeenth century is that by this time there was already a debate about the theory of language and its usage in that Jonson seems to be ready to field religious, practical and political contradictions with the terms of his argument. Even in 1592, Thomas Nashe was concerned that the "vulgar sort here is London" should "aspire to a richer puritie of speech" via the poets of his time. The similar views of Jonson and Nashe are apparently put forward as proposals for the improvement of all via English and its purification. There is an inherent pragmatism in such an aim, but its inevitable result was to cause dispute about what "Custome" might consist of and where the line between "vulgar" and "learned" might possibly be drawn. This was the dawn of prescriptivism in English: the belief that language may be harnessed, tamed and organised according to principle. However, the model of language study was, unsurprisingly, that seemingly eternal and "perfect" prototype, Latin. The comparison between a long dead classical tongue with numerous cases and flexible sentence structure, and a still- mutating and grammatically restrictive language such as English was inappropriate and doomed to failure in the long term. What emerged from these new concerns was the initiation of centuries of dispute (still alive and causing controversy to this day) about the minting of language.

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