Aubrey, Cooper, Dryden and Meriton
John Aubrey (1626-97) was an antiquary, archaeologist and biographer, but only one book of stories and folklore, Miscellanies, was published in his lifetime in 1696. None of his many other books were finished when he deposited all his manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1693. These included a collection of ‘lives’ of notable sixteenth century men and women entitled Brief Lives. The 426 ‘lives’ range in length from two to twenty-three thousand words, so any published version is an edited selection. Some of them are in no more than note-form, but the longer ones are examples of writing that give the impression of spoken narrative, a record of his unselfconscious gossip with his friends. Consequently, they provide examples of standard educated English of the seventeenth century in informal and colloquial styles:
Mr Gore. He is a fidling peevish fellow.
Thomas Willis, M.D. was middle stature: darke brindle haire (like a red pig)… stammered much.
William Sanderson dyed at Whitehall (I was then there): went out like a spent candle before Dr Holder could come to him with the Sacrament.
William Outram was a tall spare leane pale consumptive man; wasted himself much, I presume, by frequent preaching.
Mrs. Abigail Sloper borne at Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, A.D. 1648. Pride; lechery; ungratefull to her father; married, runne distracted; recovered.
Richard Stokes, M.D. His father was Fellow of Eaton College… Scholar to Mr. Oughtred for Mathematics (Algebra). Made himselfe mad with it, but became sober again, but I feare like a crackt-glasse. Became a Roman-catholique; married unhappily at Liege, dog and catt, etc. Became a Scott. Dyed in Newgate, Prisoner for debt… April 1681.
Thomas Fuller was of middle stature; strong sett; curled haire… walking and meditating before dinner, he would eate-up a penny loafe, not knowing that he did it. His natural memory was very great, to which he added the Art of Memorie: he would repeat you forwards and backwards all the signes from Ludgate to Charing-crosse.
The ‘lives’ were anecdotal, each one a collection of facts and stories that Aubrey had gathered about his subject – he was sometimes inaccurate, it is true, but he was never untruthful. The following example is from his Life of Richard Corbet (1582-1635), who became first Bishop of Oxford and then of Norwich, and is typical of the amusing stories that Aubrey liked to collect and record about his subjects:
… His conversation was extreme pleasant. Dr Stubbins was one of his cronies; he was a jolly fatt Dr and a very good house-keeper; parson in Oxfordshire. As Dr Stubbins and he were riding in Lob Lane in wett weather… the coach fell; and Dr Corbet sayd that Dr Stubbins was up to the elbowes in mud, and he was up to the elbowes in Stubbins.
… The Bishop sometimes would take the key of the wine-cellar, and he and his Chaplaine (Dr Lushington) would go and lock themselves in, and be merry. Then first he lazes downe his Episcopall hat – There lyes the Doctor. Then he putts off his gowne – There lyes the Bishop. Then ‘twas ‘Here’s to thee, Corbet, and Here’s to thee, Lushington…
Christopher Cooper, Master of the Grammar School of Bishop-Stortford in Hertfordshire, published The English Teacher or The Discovery of the Art of Teaching and Learning the English Tongue in 1687. In his English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (1968), E J Dobson described him as the best phonetician and one of the fullest recorders of pronunciation that England (and indeed modern Europe) produced before the nineteenth century, the obscure schoolmaster of a country town. Cooper’s book provides us with good evidence of the pronunciation of English at his time, although there was no phonetic alphabet at that time to provide a reference for the sounds. This was complicated by the Great Vowel Shift, which had taken place in the South of England, but not in the North, and was not complete until the end of the century. Therefore, the educated speech of London and the Home Counties, the emerging standard language, was changing, which meant that the same vowel letter now represented different sounds. Cooper distinguished as different the vowels in certain pairs of words which today are identical homophones in RP and other dialects in different parts of the North of England and East Anglia, for example pane with a pure vowel and pain with a diphthong. Cooper differentiated diphthongs in pronunciation from digraphs in writing. He did not, however, use the word digraph but the phrase improper diphthong for pairs of letters that represented only one sound. From Cooper’s work, we know that the words boil, oil, loin, moil had exactly the same pronunciation as bile, isle, line and mile. This can be checked in the poetry of the seventeenth century, such as that of John Dryden, in which many similar pairs of words consistently rhyme together. The following extracts from Cooper’s 1687 book, The English Teacher, show his attempts to reconcile vowel sounds to letters:
John Dryden (1631-1700) was one of the greatest writers in the English literary tradition, a poet, dramatist and critic. He was largely responsible for the cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late, … be kept true their name and place before the word they govern (H. W. Fowler, 1926). Dryden went through all his prefaces, contriving away the final prepositions that he had been guilty of in his first editions (ibid.) This is incidental to his recognised eminence as a prose writer, so that it has been said that Modern English prose began with him.
Dryden admired Chaucer’s poetry, but some aspects of his assessment of Chaucer throw as clear a light on Dryden himself, and the way his contemporaries thought about language and writing, as they do on Chaucer. His summary of Chaucer’s achievement is well-known:
‘Tis sufficient to say according to the Proverb, that here is God’s Plenty.
Dryden’s remarks on Chaucer’s language are relevant to our understanding of the development of Standard English, and of the attitudes to acceptable usage. He was concerned with the idea of the ‘purity’ of English and the notion that it had reached a state of perfection in his day. He wrote that, from Chaucer the Purity of the English tongue began… Chaucer lived in the Dawning of our Language. However, Dryden also felt that Chaucer’s diction stands not on an equal Foot with our present English. He therefore tried to ‘polish’ Chaucer by reversifying some of the Canterbury Tales, making his choice from those as savour nothing of Immodesty. In his preface to the fables, he quotes from Chaucer’s prologue, where the narrator thus excuses the Ribaldry, which is very gross… Dryden then goes on to discuss Chaucer’s language:
You have here a ‘Specimen of Chaucer’s’ Language, which is so obsolete, that his Sense is scarce to be understood; and you have likewise more than one Example of his unequal Numbers, which were mention’d before. Yet many of his verses consist of Ten Syllables, and the Words not much behind our present ‘English’.
When reading poetry from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, we often find pairs of words that should rhyme, but do not do so in present-day pronunciation. Rhymes therefore not only provide good evidence of changes in the pronunciation and structure of words up to the end of the fourteenth century, but they can also provide some evidence of such changes to the end of the seventeenth century and, by extension, into standard MnE. The following rhymes from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneis occur frequently throughout the translation, so cannot be mistaken for false-, eye-, or half-rhymes:
At length, in dead of Night, the Ghost appears
Of her unhappy Lord: the Spectre stares,
And with the erected Eyes his bloody bosom bares.
When rising Vapours choak the wholsom Air,
And blasts of noisom Winds corrupt the Year.
His Pow’r to hollow Caverns is confin’d,
There let him reign, the jailor of the wind.
Did I or Iris give this mad Advice,
Or made the Fool himself the fatal Choice?
Yet one remain’d, the Messenger of Fate;
High on a craggy cliff Celaeno sate,
And thus her dismall errand did relate.
O more than Madmen! You your selves shall bear,
The guilt of Blood and Sacrilegious War…
…The Brambles drink his Blood;
The Pastor pleas’d with his dire Victory,
Beholds the satiate Flames in Sheets ascend the Sky.
However, many of these words, like blood (also rhymed with God) appear to have at least two pronunciations by this time, evidence that the Great vowel shift was nearing its completion. It seems odd at first sight that enemy could apparently rhyme with both free ( /fri:/ in MnE pronunciation) and high ( /hai/ ). The vowel of high was still in the process of shifting, in Dryden’s time, from /i:/ to /ai/ and the vowel of free from /e:/ to /i:/, so that pronunciation could vary. This explains the following rhymes:
… the coast was free
From Foreign or Domestick Enemy:
He heav’d it at a Lift: and poiz’d on high,
Ran stagg’ring on, against his Enemy.
For researchers into language variety, it becomes increasingly rare to find texts from the late fifteenth century onwards which provide continuing evidence of surviving regional variations after the educated London dialect became the standard written form. Once the grammar and vocabulary of written English were standardised, other dialects were recorded only in texts written for the purpose of presenting dialects as different.
However, during the seventeenth century, there was a revival of interest in antiquarian studies and of language variety in written forms, two of the topics discussed by members of The Royal Society. Writings on language included descriptions of the Saxon language of the past and contemporary dialects. Many of the latter had found fresh expression in the Leveller writings of the relatively uncensored pamphlets of the Commonwealth period.
One form that this interest in dialect took can be found in George Meriton’s A Yorkshire Dialogue, published in York in 1683. Meriton was a lawyer, practising in the North Riding town of Northallerton. Meriton’s dialogue is a lively representation of a Yorkshire farming family, written in verse couplets, and is deliberately full of proverbial sayings. It is only indirect evidence of the authentic North Riding English of the time, but it does provide plenty of examples of dialectal and colloquial vocabulary and grammar.
The spelling of written English in the seventeenth century remained virtually unchanged, and took little account of the shifts in pronunciation that had taken place since the fourteenth century. Consequently, the spelling of Standard English did not accurately indicate the genteel accent of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. However, when writing in dialect, it was (as now) usual to spell many of the words as they were spoken, so that features of dialectal pronunciation and colloquial idioms were shown, as is demonstrated in the following short extract from Meriton’s A Yorkshire Dialogue (1683):
Niece: How duz my Cozen Tibb Naunt I mun nut stay,
I hard she gat a Cawd the other day.
(How does my Cousin Tibb Aunt, I must not stay,
I heard she got a Cold the other day)
Mother: Ey wallaneerin, wilta gang and see,
Shee’s aboun ’ith Chawmber,
Thou may clim upth Stee.
Shee’s on a dovening now gang deftly Nan,
And mack as little din as ee’r Thou can.
(Ey, alas, will thou go and see,
She’s above in the Chamber,
Thou may climb up the Ladder.
She’s in a doze now go gently Nan,
And make as little din as ever thou can.)
Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.