Johnson's Dictionary

Swift was not alone in his concern for language, and his concept of its potential perfection was influential throughout the age of Johnson. What declined with time and experience, however, was the belief that a pure vernacular could be maintained even if it might be achieved. This frustrated cynicism is found in Johnson, summing up one of the attitudes of his time towards prescriptive theories. In the preface to his dictionary, he writes with the wizened tone of one whose idealism floundered in the face of reality and with experience:

"When we see men grow old and die... we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justification may the lexicographer be derided who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay... or clear the world from folly, vanity and affectation" (Dictionary)

His modesty here is surprising, but his analogy seems to hold more weight than that of Jonson. Experience suggested that mutability would deny man the chance of taming his vernacular. Nonetheless, the pursuit of linguistic perfection in the form of a "universal philosophical language" was persistent, as in the case of Thomas Cooke in his 1729 work Proposals for Perfecting the English Language who raises Latin up as a precedent, while (somewhat contradictorily) suggesting only minor reforms. One example he uses is the potential substitution of "gooder" for "better". Common to Johnson, Cooke and the later Thomas Sheridan is the use of the languages of antiquity as a model. Sheridan suggests also the equating of spelling with phonetics for correct pronunciation and a fuller awareness of the complexities of language for clarity of thought, writing and particularly speech. This attitude seems to go both with and against "Custome". In attempting to educate via the contemporary ideals of pronunciation (certainly, this is one form of custom), there is the wish to change fundamentally the spelling (which is also customary).

The popularity of the dictionary, and the lexical certainties it seemed to offer, had a profound effect upon the popularity of amateur language commentary. It may have had at least some effect upon the lack of substantial semantic change to the present day. The comparative difficulty of reading a sixteenth compared with an eighteenth century text in the present day gives some indication of the relative stasis in English which has been evident since the time of Johnson (particularly in terms of grammar).

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