The Other Side of the Coinage

The opposite side of Verstegen's backward-looking policy (and another which would be a lasting blueprint for dispute) was put forward by his contemporary Richard Carew in The Excellencie of the English Tongue(1614) in which he describes the English of his time as "matchable, if not preferrable before any other in use at this day". His reasoning for such a claim is convincing enough in its logical basis: the English usage of the letter "w" which Greek, Latin, French and Italian did not have, the metaphorical use of component conceptual parts within polysyllables, and so on. He also commended contemporary writing and saw no distinction between its greatness and that of writing in former ages or languages, which was a view soon mimicked by those wishing to express patriotism through the praise of the written word. However, the vicious disputes between actors and Puritans over the theatre, its content and linguistic merit, in the seventeenth century gave a political and religious venom to the question of language and its usage (seen, for instance, in the intolerant reaction of John Green in 1615 to Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors[1612]).

The resulting two sides of such a politicisation of the issue of language were formed around apparently opposing views of English. It was either an antique, static and precious device to be purified - usually this suggested 'simplified' - by the "learned" (poets and scholars primarily). Alternatively, it was seen as an entity, constantly developing and perhaps boundless in its possible permutations which should be given "eloquence" through borrowing and extension. Of the former view we would count Jonson, Verstegen and Green as the forefathers and of the latter Carew, Heywood and doubtless that renowned neologist Shakespeare. The outcome of such extremism was, in the seventeenth century, a growing acceptance that some middle ground should be found between the inelegant bluntness of monosyllables and the florid extravagence of polysyllables. What this suggests is that no one was really sure where "Custome" should be drawn from and even whether it actually existed. Then, as now, ignorance or confusion only enlivened the subjective venom of the debate. More importantly, although the prescriptivism of Jonson's opinions would recur in the works of others to a greater or lesser degree (as with the economic concept of money that he uses in his analogy) proponents of a non-interventionist approach would emerge to challenge the suggestion of linguistic purification.

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