You probably don’t know this, but English, the language that you speak in all its garbled glory, was once a very poorly patient, the “Sick Man of Europe” in fact. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries it was subjected to the imperious scrutiny of some of the world’s greatest GPs of grammar, and the diagnosis was, truth to tell, not very encouraging.
“I found our speech copious without order”, went one such surgeon of language structures, “and energetic without rules”. Obviously this sort of linguistic partying had to stop: but there were more serious complaints, too. “Wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.” So it was some sort of ‘Killjoys Charter’, was it, out to cast a very wet blanket over the whole shebang? Well, perhaps not quite.
The above comments belong, of course, to Doctor Samuel Johnson, who in 1755 published his very own definitive dictionary of the English language. The reason, in case you can’t guess, is that the patient, our own tongue, was apparently in danger of passing away into a nether-world of mutual incomprehension and linguistic darkness. In fact, the wise Doc believed that “tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degenerate. We have long preserved our constitution, [so] let us make some struggles for our language.” Hear-hear, voice a million or so conservatives all at once.
However, our not so humble Doctor was not the first among his peers to bemoan the dire state of his English patient. More than a hundred years before, the royalist political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had claimed to have discovered a breakdown of language during the Civil War decade of the 1640s. “One man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty, what another Justice” he wrote in his defence of the King’s divine right to rule over a peaceful Commonwealth, held together by agreed rights and obligations.
In fact, Hobbes’ main thrust was that if language was breaking down, then so too was society, and these rather simplistic types of association between the language’s perceived health and issues of social and political stability have been reiterated time and time again by generations of anxious conservative observers. Whether they will ever be seen to be true probably requires further patience.
But let’s not jump too far ahead quite yet. One of the great Renaissance scholars, John Wallis, (pictured above) had also attempted to put things in order with his ‘Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae’ of 1653, which sliced the unfortunate victim from top to bottom in its efforts to provide a rigorous and complete analysis of the patient’s ailments. Of course, publishing his thesis in Latin brought the poor invalid little benefit, despite his efforts to write the first truly systematic grammar of the language. Nowadays, Wallis is probably better remembered for being one of the founding members of the Royal Society.
As a result it was left to Jonathan Swift, a clergyman and writer, to make further attempts to refine the language and fix it so that it no longer changed in the early 1700s. However, his efforts to bring it back up to 'a certain standard', in his own words, and protect it from charges of ‘barbarism’, were as unsuccessful as those of the previous century. He and his grammarian cohorts failed in their moves to establish an ‘Academy of English’, which was to follow the lines of the continental French and Italian ‘Royal Academies’ and regulate the language’s use in tablets of stone.
This previous medicine having proved unsuccessful, it fell upon dear old Doc Johnson to try and restore the by-now staggering fellow to full health. His diagnosis centred on an individual analysis of several parts of the whole, and some of his observations make extremely interesting reading. Let’s dip into a few of them and see what pearls of wisdom the old Doctor came up with.
Firstly, he was very keen to protect his charge from foreign contamination. He had good cause to quote “the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction. Our language has, for almost a century, been gradually departing from its original Teutonick character, and deviating towards a Gallick structure, from which it ought to be our endeavour to recall it.” So, single-handedly Dr Johnson was attempting to prevent our tongue from lapsing into Franglais, a couple of centuries before the term was even invented!
He would also have no business with translators, whom he accused of “the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation”, and of introducing too many changes in phraseology. “If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our stile,” he raged, “let them endeavour with all their influence to stop the licence of translatours, whose idleness and ignorance will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.” Again, a prediction of wicked French poisoning.
And then there were the pesky lower classes, of whom he wrote “Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in a great measure casual and mutable. [Their] fugitive cant is always in a state of increase or decay [and] can not be regarded as any part of the durable materials of the language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.” Dismissive of the accents and dialects of the greatest part of the nation, the kindly Doctor would have made a swift incision and removed their speech without a single thought for any anaesthetic.
In fact, one can just imagine him, a sprightly old fellow in a well-groomed wig, out strolling along Cheapside of a Sunday afternoon and wincing visibly at the loathsome treatment his beloved language was receiving from the lower orders around him; and then sitting to rest awhile on a bench, ferociously scribbling away at his notepad, making his prognosis for putting the patient back on the road to recovery, based on a typically English version of ‘liberty’, as opposed to the French and their fanatical adherence to tyrannical laws. How would he see things now, with French being overrun by his dear invalid, Mr English?
Coming Next: English and The State in the 18th and 19th Centuries.