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The English Language in the 18th Century
In keeping with the spirit of the Age of Reason, the movement in language in the eighteenth century was toward greater regulation of expression and greater precision in word usage and pronunciation. By the beginning of the century there had already grown up among those in fashionable society a disdain for the extravagant flourishes and conceits of seventeenth-century speech; emphasis came to be placed on refined, polite discourse based on "common sense". Those caught in the surge toward refinement - among them Swift, Steele, Addison, Johnson, and Lord Chesterfield - tended to disparage what they called "cant" or "low speech" with an assurance in the rightness of their judgements which today strikes us as immodest. However, these arbiters of language realised, as did many of their time, that the English language was in a muddle that the disputes over grammar of the previous centuries had failed to solve: words still had widely variant meanings, spellings, and pronunciations, and the general instability of the language was a barrier to clear communication. In the mishandling of the language the educated and well to do seem to have been as guilty as any. Defoe complained in one of his works that "gentlemen of fortunes and families . . . can hardly write their own names" and when they can write they "can't spell their mother tongue". A favourite point made by satirists of the day was that the one member of a great household most likely to read and write the King's English was either the butler or the serving woman.

The urge to bring the language more into accord with Natural Law is evident in hundreds of projects typified by this statement of Lord Chesterfield's published in The World in 1754, a year before the appearance of Johnson's Dictionary:

It must be owned that our language is, at present, in a state of anarchy, and hitherto, perhaps, it may not have been the worse for it. During our free and open trade, many words and expressions have been imported, adopted, and naturalised from other languages, which have greatly enriched our own . . . The time for discrimination seems to be now come. Toleration, adoption, and naturalisation have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary. But where shall we find them, and at the same time, the obedience due to them? We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and choose a dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and arduous post . . ."

Johnson's ponderous two-volume Dictionary, great achievement though it was, offered only a partial solution to the problems of normalising the language, and before the century ended there were many other attempts. The efforts at standardisation spilled over into literary texts. One mid-eighteenth-century editor announced that Shakespeare's works were an "unweeded Garden grown to Seed", and confidently set about the cultivation and pruning he thought necessary. Another over-earnest reformer named Bentley tackled Milton's poetry, and got for his pains Pope's ridicule for being a scribbler "whose unwearied pains / Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton's strains". If there was widespread agreement that the English language needed polishing, there was little agreement about how it should be done, and the controversy continued throughout the century.

One characteristic of the many arguments for purification of English was a sort of intellectual elitism that rejected the living language of the mob (the word mob is itself an eighteenth-century coinage used by those who wished to emphasise their social exclusivity). The more commons words of Anglo-Saxon derivation were frowned upon as low, slangy, or imprecise, and in their place many Latinisms were substituted, largely because words derived from Latin were supported by the "authority" of classical writers, and also because they were suited for expressing the abstractions that dominated eighteenth-century thinking.

While neo-classicism did much to tone down the bizarre and freakish aspects of seventeenth-century speech, it did not, in spite of its insistence on rules and rigidity, stamp out the rich variety which makes English a vital instrument of communication. Although both Johnson and Swift objected to the use of such words as hubug, prig, doodle, bamboozle, fib, bully, fop, banter, stingy, fun, prude, they continued in use then as they are today, evidence of the fact that people, not grammar books or dictionaries, make and perpetuate language.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
10 June 2002


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