Fear of the Colonies and Slang

By the time of Swift, the reasons for concern about the English language went beyond nationalism and suspect politics of the monosyllable as divine device and precedent to an apparently genuine concern for the abuse of English. The authors of the eighteenth century reached a decision, perhaps guided by the now long-respected view of English as serious language boasting Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (these having lost their respective taints of arrogant aloofness, populism and religious dissidence). They saw that the gulf between contemporary "Custome", even among the well-educated and the perceived purity of the tongue was widening to the point of what they envisioned as a potential catastrophe. The new dictionaries of the era presented language in a fixed state and were written with an eye to the (now) classics of English literature, especially in Dr. Johnson's seminal Dictionary of 1755 where each entry is accompanied by examples of usage in the author's favourite texts (admittedly they are not always accurate or helpful). If language strayed from such a formal and fixed basis, it occurred to the intellectuals of the time that it must therefore be incorrect and therefore a threat to their precious language.

Once again, the issue of "vulgar" usage emerged as a rallying cry for authors perplexed or frustrated by this misuse of English. This was a problem compounded by the contact with a growing world, and soon colonies which sent back lexicon and idiom from their new dialects (Hobson Jobson's Anglo-Indian Dictionary provides numerous examples of this), especially that which became known as "American", were becoming increasingly important in semantic change. However, "American" was notably entirely ignored by Johnson in his Anglo-centric dictionary, despite previous records of words such as "loon" in dictionaries in the 1710s. This demonstrated the influence that a prescriptive attitude could have, at least in the short-term, when it was proposed by a man of the standing and respect of Johnson.

Jonathan Swift's anxiety about the misuse of his language, expressed in "The Tatler" in 1710 is an early example of the seventeenth century obsession with the purification of the mother tongue, which has lasted in numerous forms of pedantry to the present day. Rarely since then have the defenders of the language spoken with such simple eloquence on the subject, however:

"two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third; I mean, the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred." (p. 253 in The Oxford Authors: Jonathan Swift)

The continuum running from Jonson to Swift is evident from the "false refinement" which recalls the former's wish to prevent "custome" imitating the "Vulgar" with morally didactic intent. "Good" and "evil" are, perhaps surprisingly for the modern student of language, central to both their arguments for the upkeep of English. Swift's distaste for slang (e.g. "banter", "bamboozle"), abbreviations (e.g. "phizz, hipps, mobb, poz., rep. and many more") and other apparent abuse of the language led to his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue in 1712 wherein he lauded the English of the time between Elizabeth's reign and the Civil War of 1642. After this date, he suggested, corruption had begun to surface. What emerges is a cyclical theory (and here the comparison is drawn, typically with Greek and Latin) whereby communication rises to a zenith of purity, associated with a perceived closeness to the language of God. From that time onward it is likely to decline. Swift's desire is to find and maintain that perfect linguistic moment permanently (by means of "a certain Standard... to fix it for ever" (Proposal...). "Custome" was approached with extreme caution since perceived vulgarity seemed no longer to be exclusive to the vulgar.

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