Eccentric Arguments

That English was being taken seriously in the England of Elizabeth is evidenced by the somewhat eccentric interest in speculation about its history (and particularly its first origins) among scholars and the more well off members of sixteenth century society. Of these scholars, Richard Verstegen stands out for his keen association of the English tongue with Christianity. In A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605), he proposes that "the English-Saxon" language was spoken "at the confusion of Babel" and was open but tentative about the possibility suggested by Joannes Goropius Becanus that it was the "Teutonic" language which "Adam spake in Paradise". These ludicrous, jingoistic endeavours to equate English with the tongue of the first peoples of God give a good impression of the fairly subjective and speculative basis of much of prescriptive linguistics in its infancy and beyond. Verstegen and others including Puttenham suggested the prelapsarian divinity of the "Teutonic" monosyllable, a pseudo-historical attempt to prescribe the rejection of so-called "loan- words" from the continent and "inkhorn" classicism.

Intriguing though the rejection of the polysyllable may be, it is further evidence for the somewhat random selective procedure by which "experts" upon language of the time already harked back to an (unrecorded) past for the justification of personal preference, religious or political ends. The wish to artificially "purify" a language is contained within the subtext of Jonson's argument: protecting it from "vulgar" influence as if it were a new born, incapable of growing and adapting to its environment without interference despite the fact that such a claim was historically unfounded. The argument would develop into even more petty and subjective veiled élitism over time. Language, by these interventionist means was to remain a social and intellectual divide even after the gradual relegation of Latin and French as primary languages of the well to do. Whether or not the intention was stated, the elevation of language according to "learned" rules was unlikely to filter through to a populace without the formal education of the wealthy and the people of court. The issue of where "Custome" comes from - and should stay - is therefore central to an understanding of the debate suggested by Jonson.

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