Eighteenth Century English: ‘The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue’.   Leave a comment


Modern Standard English was achieved when writers began to use prescribed and agreed forms of vocabulary and grammar, regardless of the dialectal variety that they spoke in everyday life. As a result, regional and class dialects, which were themselves no less rule-governed and systematic than the agreed standard form, were increasingly regarded as inferior to it. In the eighteenth century, there were major shifts and changes in attitudes towards, and beliefs about, the standard language and the dialects. The linguistic changes which took place from the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century were relatively few and far between.

During the eighteenth century, many pamphlets, articles and grammar books were published on the question of correcting, improving and, when and if possible, fixing the language in printed form. One word that recurred time and time again in referring to the state of the English language was corruption. It can be found in the following text, an extract from an article by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the journal The Tatler. The complete article took the form of a supposed letter written to Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;


There are some Abuses among us of great Consequence, the Reformation of which is properly your Province, tho’, as far as I have been conversant in your Papers, you have not yet considered them. These are, the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers, the great depravity of our Taste, and the continual Corruption of our Style…

These 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…

What Swift disliked most were certain new colloquial words and phrases, together with fashionable features of pronunciation, all part of spoken rather than written usage. He specifically condemned these as features of Style, that is, of deliberate choices of words and structures from the resources of the language. At the same time, he referred in general to the Corruption of the English Tongue, an evaluative metaphor that implied worsening and decay, as if the style he disliked to hear could affect everyone’s use of English in both oral and written forms.

This attitude of condemnation, focusing on relatively trivial aspects of contemporary usage, was taken up time and time again throughout the eighteenth century, and continued until the late twentieth century. It is important to study it and its effects, one of which was that non-standard varieties of the language tended to become stigmatised as substandard, while Standard English was thought of as the English language, rather than as the prestige dialect of the language.

The written language and speech of educated men and women of the south-east, especially in London, Oxford and Cambridge, was the source of Standard English. This was the sixteenth century writer John Hart’s best and most perfite English and George Puttenham’s usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London. The following text from James Beattie’s Theory of Language of 1774, given in facsimile, illustrates the establishment of this choice:



Swift’s concern for the state of the language, as he saw it, was so great that he published a serious proposal for establishing some sort of ’academy’ to regulate and maintain the standards of the English language, similar to the Academie Francaise which had been set up in 1634. The arguments used were similar to those he had expressed in The Tatler in 1710, but he also added the idea of ascertaining the language, fixing, making it certain, so that it would not be subject to future corruptions. Below are some facsimile extracts from his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue; in a Letter to the Most Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain, 1712:


Swift thought that the century from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 to the beginning of the Civil Wars in 1642 was a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of improvement in the language, although he also believed that it had not yet reached a state of perfection. This belief that languages could be improved and brought to a state of perfection was a commonly held one among Swift’s contemporaries, though it is not widely believed in our time. Confusion between language and language use caused one to be identified as synonymous with the other, so that a period of great writers is often referred to as a period of ‘greatness’ for the language. Swift identified and associated styles which he disliked with corruption of the English language.

Swift’s assertion of the concept that language need not be ‘perpetually changing’, and that ascertaining or fixing the English language was desirable was disputed by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who published his Dictionary in 1755. He referred to Swift’s proposal in the preface to the dictionary, revealing himself to be sceptical of the possibility of success, although he shared his belief in the concept of perfection and corruption of language:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

… tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration: we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

Some writers of what has become known in Literature as The Augustan Age believed that a state of Classical perfection would be achieved some time in their forseeable future, but later eighteenth century grammarians placed it in the early and mid-eighteenth century language of writers like Addison, Steele, Pope and Swift himself. The period is known as the Augustan Age because it was compared with the period of the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD, when great Latin writers like Virgil, Horace and Ovid flourished. The language and literature of Classical Rome and Greece still formed the foundation of education in the nineteenth century. Writers in English copied the forms of Classical literature, like the epic, the ode and dramatic tragedy, while the Latin and Greek languages were models of perfection in their preserved, unchangeable state, to which it was hoped that English could aspire and attain. The influence and sound of Latin and Greek helps to Swift’s dislike of ‘Northern’ clusters of consonants.

Of course, the vernacular Latin language of the first century had continued to change, so that after several centuries its several dialects had evolved into French, Italian, Spanish and the Romance languages. But Classical Latin was fixed and ascertained, because its vocabulary and grammar were derived from the literature of its greatest literary period. This state seemed to scholars and writers to be in great contrast with contemporary English, and so, following Swift’s call, many of them sought to improve the written vernacular language. Somewhere, either in the past or the future, lay the perfect form of the English language.

In contrast to the second half of the seventeenth century, there were few references to the language of the ordinary people in the writings of the eighteenth century ‘grammarians’. Anselm Bayly wrote in 1772 that it was beneath a grammarian’s attempt to study colloquial English dialects. Neither were writers whom they admired necessarily taken as models of good English. Authors’ writings were subjected to detailed scrutiny for supposed errors. Grammarians sometimes spoke of the Genius of the Language or the Idiom of the Tongue as a criterion for judgement, the word ‘genius’ meaning sometimes ‘character’ or ‘spirit’, sometimes simply ‘grammar’. However, in practice, this latter concept meant no more than the intuition of the grammarian: what he felt sounded right, expressed in the Latin term Ipse dixit (he himself says). Sometimes this reliance on personal opinion was clearly stated, as in the following extract from Robert Baker’s 1770 Reflections on the English Language:

It will be easily discovered that I have paid no regard to authority. I have censured even our best penmen, where they have departed from what I conceive to be the idiom of the tongue, or where I have thought they violate grammar without necessity. To judge by the rule of ‘Ipse dixit’ is the way to perpetuate error…

… even by Swift, Temple, Addison and other writers of the highest reputation; some of them, indeed, with such a shameful impropriety as one must think must shock every English ear, and almost induce the reader to suppose the writers to be foreigners.

Their ‘crime’ was apparently the misuse of prepositions! Baker condemned Ipse dixit as used by these ‘best penmen’, but not when applied to himself. Appeals were often made to ‘Reason’ or ‘Analogy’, but grammarians were not always consistent in their arguments. They recognised that the evidence for the vocabulary and grammar of the language must be derived from what people actually wrote and spoke, which they sometimes referred to as ‘custom’. The one eighteenth century grammar book which had a particular influence on later grammars published for use in schools was Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. Lowth’s attitude was ‘prescriptive’ – that is that he laid down what he considered to be correct usage, as illustrated by the following extract from his book:

Grammar is the Art of rightly expressing our thoughts by words, etc. … The principal design of a Grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language, and to be able to judge every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not, etc …

The words ‘propriety’ and ‘rightly’ are important here because Lowth was not describing the language in its many varieties, but prescribing what ought to be written in a standard variety of English, and pointing out the ‘errors’ and ‘solecisms’ with examples from authors like Milton, Dryden and Pope. He described other varieties of usage only in order to condemn them. The following text, given in facsimile, is an extract from the preface to his work, typifies this particular attitude to language use. What people actually say or write, even though they may be socially of the same background, the ‘highest rank’ of eminent authors, is subject to Lowth’s prescriptive judgement. The second text below is an example of Lowth’s prescriptive method as stated in his book, in which he is stating the use of ‘will’ and ‘shall’, together with a short extract from his preface:

 001 (2)


Lowth’s book was intended for those who were already well-educated, as can be inferred from his preface in which he stated that… Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction which we pass thro’ in our childhood… His use of the first person plural implies that his readers, like him, would have studied Latin and Greek – the ancient… learned languages – at grammar school. This, however, did not provide them with knowledge of English grammar, even though they lived in a polite society and read English literature, an activity not followed by most of the population at that time. Lowth’s style of writing, like that of the other grammarians, was very ‘formal’; its vocabulary and structure were unlike that of everyday language. Below are two short contrasting examples of eighteenth century writing, the first from Thomas Hearne’s diary, Remarks and Collections (1715), and so in an informal prose style, and the second from a literary journal, The Rambler, written by Samuel Johnson in July, 1550. Literary prose adopted its own fashionable choices from the language at different periods, while ‘ordinary’ prose, in both speech and writing, continued generally unremarked upon:

MAY 28 (Sat.) This being the Duke of Brunswick, commonly called King George’s Birth-day, some of the bells were jambled in Oxford, by the care of some of the Whiggish, Fanatical Crew; but as I did not observe the Day in the least my self, so it was little taken notice of (unless by way of ridicule) by other honest People, who are for K. James IIId. Who is undoubted King of these Kingdoms,… ’tis heartily wish’d by them that he may be restored. (Thomas Hearne)

The advantages of mediocrity

Health and vigour, and a happy constitution of the corporeal frame, are of absolute necessity to the enjoyment of the comforts, and to the performance of the duties of life, and requisite in yet a greater measure to the accomplishment of any thing illustrious or distinguished; yet even these, if we can judge by their apparent consequences, are sometimes not very beneficial to those on whom they are most liberally bestowed…

The standard language recognised by the eighteenth century grammarians was that variety used by what Swift called the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation – polite in the sense of polished, refined, elegant, well-bred. By definition, the depraved language of the common people was, in every sense, viewed as inferior. George Campbell expressed this with great clarity when he wrote in his Philosophy of Rhetoric that:

No absolute monarch hath it more in his power to nobilitate a person of obscure birth than it is in the power of good use to ennoble words of low or dubious extraction; such, for instance, as have either arisen, nobody knows how, like ‘fib’, ‘banter’, ‘bigot’, ‘fop’, ‘flippant’ among the rabble, or ‘flimsy’, sprung from the cant of the manufacturers …


Samuel Johnson (above) was equally dismissive of common speech in the Preface to his Dictionary of 1755:

Nor are all words which are not found in the vocabulary, to be lamented as omissions. Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in great measure casual and mutable; many of their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and though current at certain times and places, are in others utterly unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.

These comments clearly show that the divisions in eighteenth century society were marked as much by language as by birth, rank, wealth and education. If the language of the common people was regarded as inferior by the educated upper classes, so too were their ideas and thoughts equally devalued. Language was regarded as ‘the dress of thought’ or, using another common metaphor, ‘the mirror of thought’. It was believed that there was a direct correlation between good language and good thinking. On the one hand was the dominant social class, the Gentry, whose language and way of life were variously described as polite, civilised, elegant, noble, refined, tasteful and pure. On the other hand were the laborious and mercantile part of the people, shopkeepers and hackney-coachmen, the rabble, whose language was vulgar, barbarous, contemptible, low, degenerate, profane, mean, abject and depraved.

This view was reinforced by a theory of language that was called Universal Grammar, the belief in a direct connection between language and the mind, or soul, and in the superior value of abstract thought over the senses. For students of language today, the differences between Standard English and regional dialects are viewed as linguistically superficial and unimportant. The same meanings can be conveyed as easily in one as in the other, although we cannot, in everyday life, ignore the social connotations of regional and non-standard speech, which are still very powerful in conveying and maintaining attitudes. However, in the eighteenth century, the linguistic differences between refined and common speech were held to match fundamental differences in both intellect and morality. The gulf between the two was reinforced by the fact that education was in the learned languages, Latin and Greek. The classical Greek language and literature were judged to be the most ‘perfect’.

As it was believed that the contrasts between the refined language of the classically educated class and the vulgar language of the common people mirrored equal differences in intellectual capabilities, and also in virtue and morality, such beliefs had social and political consequences. These can be demonstrated by the fact that, during the long years of warfare with France (1793-1815), there was marked political oppression of popular movements for reform, and ideas about language were used to protect the government from criticism. For example, the notion of vulgarity of language was used to dismiss a series of petitions before Parliament calling for reform of the voting system. If the language of the labouring classes was, by definition, inferior, incapable of expressing coherent thought and of dubious moral value, then it was impossible for them to use language properly in order to argue their own case:

Liberty of speech and freedom of discussion in this House form an essential part of the constitution; but it is necessary that persons coming forward as petitioners, should address the House in decent and respectful language.

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 779)

The following extract from a 1793 Petition to Parliament from Sheffield shows that while the spelling and grammar were perfectly correct, the Members of Parliament may have considered its style and tone as indecent and disrespectful:

Your petitioners are lovers of peace, of liberty, and justice. They are in general tradesmen and artificers, unpossessed of freehold land, and consequently have no voice in choosing members to sit in parliament; – but though they may not be freeholders, they are men, and do not think themselves fairly used in being excluded the rights of citizens…

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 776)

To the modern reader, this would appear to be not only accurate but also appropriate in its use of English. Indeed, one contemporary commented that he suspected that the objection to the roughness of the language was not the real cause why this Petition was opposed. To gain an idea of the relative ’roughness’ of working-class language from the time, we should contrast the above with the following anonymous protest letter against the closure of common land, from the Combin’d Parish of Cheshunt… to Oliver Cromwell Esquire (the pseudonym for their local landlord)… 27 February 1799. It uses non-standard spelling, punctuation and grammar, which would have provided Parliament with an excuse for its dismissal, had it come before them.

We right these lines to you… in the Defence of our Parrish rights which you unlawfully are about to disinherit us of… Resolutions is maid of by the aforesaid Combind that if you intend of inclosing Our Commond Commond fields Lammas Meads Marches &c Whe Resolve before that bloudy and unlawful act is finished to have your hearts bloud if you proceede in the aforesaid bloudy act Whe like horse leaches will cry give, give until whe have split the bloud of every one that wishes to rob the Inosent unborn. It shall not be in your power to to say I am safe from the hands of my Enemy for Whe like birds of pray will prively lie in wait to spil the abode are as putrified sores in our Nostrils. Whe declair that thou shall not say I am safe when thou goest to thy bed for beware that thou liftest not thine eyes up in the most mist of flames…

(Quoted in E. P. Thompson (1963), The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 240.)

It sets the tone for the letters of the later Luddite, Swing and Rebecca rioters. At the same time, writers such as Tom Paine, in his The Rights of Man (1792) and The Age of Reason (1794) and William Cobbett (1763-1835), were able to demonstrate that men of humble origins could also argue effectively in Standard English. From 1785 to 1791, Cobbett, a farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, served in a regiment of foot in Canada, leaving the army when he failed to bring some officers to trial for embezzlement. Although receiving an elementary education as a young man, he had little knowledge of ’grammar’. However, his ability to write in a fair hand procured him the role of ’copyist’ to the regimental Colonel and commandant of the garrison:

Being totally ignorant of the rules of grammar, I necessarily made many mistakes in copying, because no one can copy letter by letter, nor even word by word. The colonel saw my deficiency, and strongly recommended study… with a promise of reward in case of success.

I procured me a Lowth’s grammar, and applied myself to the study of it with unceasing assiduity, and not without some profit: for, though it was a considerable time before I fully comprehended all that I read, still I read and studied with such unremitted study that, at last, I could write without falling into any gross errors. The pains I took cannot be described: I wrote the whole grammar out two or threetimes; I got it by heart; I repeated it every morning and every evening, and… I imposed on myself the task of saying it all over once every time I was posted sentinel. To this exercise of my memory I ascribe the retentiveness of which I have since found it capable, and to the success with which it was attended… that has led to the acquirement of that little learning of which I am the master.

(The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, 1796)

Cobbett was convinced that without this ability to master standard grammar, no young man of humble origins could ever hope to aspire to anything beyond mere trade or agriculture. Without grammatical knowledge, it was impossible to learn to write properly, and the ability to speak correctly would be a matter of chance. All well-informed persons, he wrote, would judge a man’s mind according to the correctness of his speaking and writing, at least until they had other means of judging. He followed up his conviction in this by writing a grammar book which took the form of a number of letters addressed to his son.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. 

Basingstoke: Macmillan. 


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