THE development of the English language in the period from Dryden to Johnson inevitably harmonized very closely with that of the literature and ideas of the age. When men desired stability in politics and society, they advocated stability in language. Since correctness and elegance became the ideals in literature, words and their usage had to be submitted to the same criteria. Order and harmony in life and thought must be reflected in the clear and graceful structure and cadence of sentences. The good breeding of a gentleman was impossible without well-bred speech free from affectation, pedantry, rusticity, and crudeness. As both the upper and professional classes and the growing mercantile middle class became increasingly conscious that material prosperity was a prime ideal to be pursued, language was required to be primarily useful, a clear, easy, precise means of communication. Science too demanded direct, unelaborate expression. The expanding journalism of newspapers and periodicals likewise favoured an easy, but dignified, use of words. The coffee-houses of Dryden's and Addison's days put English to a refining conversational schooling whereby Dryden's Prefaces and the Spectator papers could be entertainingly discussed. As women helped to swell the numbers of the reading public, authors kept their books freer from 'hard' words. The new literary form, the novel, called for a good central English to attract the general reader. In fact, the English language from Dryden's day through the eighteenth century developed steadily away from the rich individual freedom and variety of the earlier seventeenth century, with its licence, excess, obscurity, and crudity, until it became an instrument fully adapted to the needs of a broad-based society which valued, above all, order, discipline, good manners, common sense, prosperity, and a comfortable ease of communication. Probably in no other period in our history has English been so well written in the middle manner by all ranks of society, even in the diaries and letters of the least literary.
From about 1660 there gradually developed a conscious anxiety about the stability of the language and a sense of the need both to reform it and fix it. If the language could not be rendered stable, then modern poets would in their turn become as hard to read as was Chaucer with his then obsolete English, which justified Dryden, as he declared in the Preface to his Fables in 1700, in presenting Chaucer in a modern version despite the protests of such as held there was 'a veneration due to his old language'. What could arrest such change? How could a standard of correctness be attained and enforced? How could the vocabulary be pruned of the undesirable excesses which for many years had been entering it by borrowings, adaptations, and coinages from foreign sources and from the jargon of political and religious fanatics of the Commonwealth era? For half a century it seemed to many that the answer lay in the setting up of an Academy on the model of the several Italian Academies and of the French Academy, which had been founded in 1635. Dryden in his Dedication to The Rival Ladies in 1664 wrote: 'I am sorry, that (speaking so noble a language as we do) we have not a more certain measure of it, as they have in France, where they have an Academy erected for the purpose.' In the same year Dryden was a member of a small committee set up by the recently founded Royal Society to consider means 'for improving the English language'. The committee met only a few times and nothing resulted, but the idea remained in Dryden's mind. Roscommon thought similarly. An Academy was one of the proposals in Defoe's Essay upon Projects in 1697. In 1712 Swift addressed to Harley, the Tory Lord Treasurer, the last notable plea for an Academy in A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining (i.e. fixing) the English Tongue, but whatever prospects lay in his powerful advocacy were ruined no doubt by the collapse of the Tories in 1714. Sir Robert Walpole was not the man to spend good public money on an Academy.
That the idea of an Academy failed to take shape was due to various factors. For one thing, an Academy with any real authority over the language hardly seems a natural institution to grow in the soil of that practical, common-sense, and individualistic age, even though that age exalted the virtues of order and correctness. It was natural enough for an Academy to be advocated by Dryden, who was some thing of a literary dictator, by Defoe, whose bent was for planning, and by Swift, a dictator at heart, but one may well imagine that to most of the Augustans the answer lay in common-sense efforts by all who were concerned for the well-being of the language and the future of literature. That, at any rate, was how the reform of the language was largely achieved. From many quarters came the plea for 'correctness', for easy, direct, and perspicuous communication of meaning. Sprat in his History of the Royal Society (1667), while himself strongly in favour of an Academy ('such a project is now seasonable to be set on foot, and may make a great reformation in the manner of our speaking and writing'), told how the Royal Society was already doing its utmost to reform the writing of English by exacting 'from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness; bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can: and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that of Wits, or Scholars'. In the schools Locke's earnest plea, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), for the exercising of children in English must have encouraged a better attention to the task in the following generation and have helped to lay a sound foundation: his book was steadily reprinted. And Locke further declared that 'whatever foreign languages a young man meddles with (and the more he knows the better), that which he should critically study, and labour to get a facility, clearness, and elegancy to express himself in, should be his own, and to this purpose he should daily be exercised in it'. Dryden was influential not only by what he said about good writing in Prefaces, and surely in Will's coffee-house, but by the contagious example of all he wrote. Addison too preached good English by the very success of his own style, and no doubt orally too to his 'little senate'. Swift by example and precept taught that good style was no more and no less than 'proper words in proper places'.
Reference, however, to lesser rather than major writers perhaps conveys best how the campaign for a reformed English was fought and won. One such was John Hughes, who in 1698 wrote an essay, Of Style, at the request of a friend whose 'enquiry seems more particularly concerning the language'. Hughes therefore spoke mainly of prose style 'as being that which is most necessary'. Summing up all the qualities of a good style in Propriety, Perspicuity, Elegance, and Cadence, he recommended to his friend as 'the best direction... a diligent and careful perusal of the most correct writers of the language in their various kinds, with the conversation of people of fashion, that speak well and without affectation. The most correct writers that I know are Sir William Temple, Dr Sprat, and Dr Tillotson for prose, and Mr Waller for verse.' His friend must consider that for purity of language 'the rule... is modern use'. Formal rules Hughes did not favour, especially for writing letters and essays; rules there must be, but his friend should furnish himself with rules deduced from the example of correct writers. Thus those who took the advice of a man like Hughes and were influenced too by the leading writers of the day, went a long way towards achieving a reformed English without the help of an Academy. Chesterfield, writing to his son in 1749, still spoke with contempt of his countrymen for not studying their language as carefully as the Italians and French studied theirs ('Witness their respective academies and dictionaries, for improving and fixing their languages'), but in urging the lad to 'make [him]self a pure and elegant English style' he admitted 'it requires nothing but application'. So, indeed, experience was proving that an Academy was unnecessary, and Dr Johnson in his Preface to his Dictionary (1755) went further, declaring such an institution un-English. The English in fact now turned to dictionaries and grammars as the best way of advancing that reform of the language which had already gone far, and the idea of fixing the language was generally given up. Johnson held that the inevitable mutability of language evidenced by history could be stopped neither by dictionaries nor by academies.
But before discussing dictionaries and grammars it is necessary to say something more of the Augustan vocabulary, and particularly of the 'poetic diction' which often comes between the Augustan poets and the modern reader, though rarely in the best poems. Gray remarked in a letter to his friend West in 1742 that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry', and it was a view generally held, but the kind of language used by the poets depended largely on the kind of poem to be written. In satire the poet could and often did keep to the simplest language of everyday use: a scribbler 'at his dirty work again', 'pride that licks the dust', the soul that 'sits at squat, and peeps not from its hole', the 'painted child of dirt that stinks and stings' — for such themes Pope used the most direct vernacular. But as epic, pastoral, and ode were different in 'kind', and the Augustans were convinced of the virtue of observing difference of literary 'kind', a different poetic vocabulary was considered necessary for them. Pope remarked in the Preface to his Homer: 'To throw the language more out of prose, Homer seems to have affected the compound-epithets. This was a sort of composition peculiarly proper to poetry, not only as it heightened the diction, but as it assisted and filled the numbers with greater sound and pomp, and likewise conduced in some measure to thicken the images.' Similarly, when attempting themes epical or of high seriousness or the loftier lyric, the Augustans sought 'to throw the language more out of prose' by a special vocabulary to which a study of Virgil and Milton contributed much. In this kind of diction Dryden, a close student of the Latin poets and of Milton, led the way; Pope brought it to perfection in his translation of Homer, and then it became for many years the normal diction of the average serious poet. Hence arose such Latinisms as the constantly used purple in the sense bright, and horrid as rough, gelid, mellifluous, turgent, irriguous, concoctive, diffusive (view), protended (spear), ovarious (food). Thomson's Seasons is full of such words, though he could often be simplicity itself: indeed, the contrasts jostle oddly, as in his description of a stag-hunt, where we read of the huntsmen 'adhesive to the track', while of the stag he writes simply 'the big round tears run down his dappled face'. The more ordinary or utilitarian the subject, the more needful the poet generally felt it to avoid the prosaic word at which his sophisticated readers might laugh. So Dyer in his Fleece may let his sheep 'with busy mouths... scoop white turnips', but he quickly changes the vulgar turnip to 'the watery juices of the bossy root'. Poetry indeed stood on its dignity when it could not on its inspiration. Cowper, very capable of simple English, felt still that the tobacco in a woodman's pipe required dignifying as 'the fragrant charge of a short tube that fumes beneath his nose'. Such efforts may to us seem verging on parody, but they were in part due to fear of the Augustan parodists to whom the natural often appealed as the ridiculous.
What perhaps particularly offends the modern reader is the constant use in Augustan poetry of terms like 'the feather'd choir', 'the wingy swarm', 'the finny tribe', 'our fleecy wealth', and 'the foodful brine'. Yet they had the merit often of being both precise and concise, and they came into existence for that end, carrying normally a fuller meaning than superficial reading detects. Thus 'feather'd choir' was not merely an evasion of 'birds' but a semi-scientific statement that these particular singers were birds, and 'fleecy wealth' conveys at once the physical and economic with verbal thrift. Moreover, this use of language harmonized with the Augustan belief in generalization, which Johnson famously expressed in Rasselas, where it is laid down that 'the business of the poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species: to remark general properties and large appearances'. It was an attitude to poetry which appealed to and sprang from the eighteenth-century's love of order and its desire for intellectual clarity, and from this pursuit of the abstract and generalized idea there followed naturally two other characteristics, the constant use of certain 'poetic' words and of personification. The stock of poetic words and phrases included gales, which commonly blow, vales often verdant, train perhaps glittering, swain and nymph, lawn, azure main, tender tears, melt ('pity melts the eyes'), smiling (land), blooming, genial, frantic, solemn hour. The list could be a long one. Many of these words — for example, gale, blow, and swain — were, by virtue of their long vowels, especially useful for rhymes, but on the whole the significance of this choice of certain words in preference to many others available lies in their general nature. Gales are merely the air in movement, vales a broadly conceived aspect of landscape. Formal epithets like smiling or solemn, verdant or azure, with 'decent' grace supported the generalization. It was all Propriety, conforming to the now established tradition of the reformed and refined language, which, as Johnson said, had been transformed from brick to marble. Similarly, personification was a 'decent', but rarely successful, attempt to give animation to the marble of the abstract nouns with which eighteenth-century verse was inevitably overladen. Partly following Milton's example, it was as near as the Augustans generally felt justified in approaching concrete treatment of ideas. For them it was vivid enough to conceive 'Youth at the prow and Pleasure at the helm'. Poetic diction also favoured compound adjectives. Homer, as Pope said, showed the example, and so did Milton. Welsted in A Dissertation Concerning the Perfection of the English Language, the State of Poetry, etc. (1724) considered one virtue of English to be 'that it is capable of finely compounding the words often times, like the Greek'. Hence came such compounds as Gray's 'rosy-bosomed Hours' and 'incense-breathing morn '. Outside his Homer, Pope hardly used them at all, but Thomson in the Seasons made free use of them, often agreeably — blood-happy hounds, romp-loving miss, lovely-shining leopard, and thick-nibbling sheep are typical instances. Adjectives in -y also became prolific in the poetic language. This suffix had, from the earliest stages of the language, been of the greatest use, and Elizabethans had used such words as paly and steepy, but with the Augustans the use and coinage of such adjectives became monotonous, partly for the value of the extra syllable, partly for poetic elevation and for conciseness. So, in addition to such favourites as plumy, wingy, finny, gloomy, dewy, balmy, there occur everywhere such formations as spiry, stenchy, sleeky, lawny, and brooky. Downy could apply to snowflakes, fleece, or even an orchard, such was the virtue of its typical lack of definition. Then, too, there were the Spenserian words. Earlier the imitation was deliberately humorous. Ween, wight, mickle, perdie, withouten, participles like y-covered and infinitives like grieven were an amusing colouring. A later Spenserian like Thomas Warton with his paynim, orison, besprent, and emprise was quite serious. In between, Thomson in The Castle of Indolence, truest Spenserian poem of the century; both smiled and worshipped as he used words like replevy, swink, and bedight.
The prose of this period invites less detailed comment. As in the poetry, a limitation of vocabulary was exercised. In the long run the general tendency was towards greater formality, as can be seen in the passage from the easy conversational style of Dryden to the balance and dignity of Johnson. As the aristocratic supremacy in life and letters of the Restoration period yielded to the middle class in the next century, the language naturally conformed to the change. The colloquial and easy, as well as the coarse, were avoided for fear of being 'low'. The free sparkling wit of Restoration drama was not to the taste of the later audiences who were addicts of the genteel sentimental drama; they might let Goldsmith and Sheridan laugh at their taste, but those dramatists had to observe greater propriety of speech than Wycherley and Congreve. A sense of literary 'kinds' was felt in prose too, though with less force. Thus No. 25 of the Guardian (1713) declared an historian's 'style must be majestic and grave, as well as simple and unaffected; his narrative should be animated, short, and clear, so as even to outrun the impatience of the reader, if possible. This can only be done by being very sparing and choice in words' — a remark followed by disapproval of Bacon's style in his Henry VII, for Bacon 'lived in an age wherein chaste and correct writing was not in fashion'. Hughes, similarly, in Of Style, held Philosophy to require a grave style, while Morality and Divinity 'were capable of all the ornaments of Wit and Fancy' and History 'is content with a plainer dress'. Probably the novel exercised the strongest levelling influence on the prose vocabulary. Richardson's middle-class sense of what was decent and suitable to be read especially by women reinforced the example of Addison's essays for women. Fielding had Eton and the Classics behind him, but a wider and less educated public to win. Smollett, ex-naval surgeon and prolific hack writer, employed a broad average vocabulary. All the novelists indeed, Sterne excepted, in their different ways kept to the middle kind of English, avoiding affectation. and pedantry. Moreover, it should be remembered that the institution of circulating libraries dates from 1740.
On the whole, the eighteenth century soon became satisfied with the current state of English. Welsted in his Dissertation claims that English has reached 'the Perfection, which denominates a Classical Age'. After our having 'trafficked with every country for the enriching of it', he holds 'we have laid aside all our harsh antique words and retained only those of good sound and energy; the most beautiful polish is at length given to our tongue and its Teutonic rust quite worn away'. The time for extensive 'trafficking' had certainly passed. The foreign language that continued to contribute most to English was French, but even in the Restoration period, though there was a fashion of using French words in conversation and in plays, the number of French words that were adopted into English was not large. They include ballet, nom-de-plume, group, tableau, champagne, and reservoir, and in envoy, aide-de-camp, and commandant successors to military terms like dragoon, platoon, and brigade borrowed before 1640. Military terms indeed continued to come in during Marlborough's campaigns, and Addison in No. 165 of the Spectator mocked at the 'modish' use of such 'modern military eloquence' as gens d'armes, corps de reserve, carte blanche, and cartel, and wondered whether 'superintendents of our language' were not required to prevent the entry of foreign, and especially French, words. Enfilade, bivouac, and corps, however, entered in Queen Anne's reign, and there was a trickle of French words throughout the century, increasing slightly at the French Revolution. Among these were envelope, salon, bureau, canteen, roulette, connoisseur, coterie, glacier, chenille, and words of cooking and social life, such as casserole, croquette, picnic, etiquette, sangfroid, and gauche.
In fact, the process of borrowing was now limited to taking a few words belonging to the arts or sciences or describing special things. Thus from Italian in the later seventeenth century came the architectural terms dado and rotunda, the musical sonata, solo, spinet, and vivace, and the artistic mezzotint, cartoon, caricatura, and chiaroscuro, and these were followed in the eighteenth century by colonnade, arcade, and loggia, soprano, trombone, pianoforte, cantata, oratorio, libretto, adagio, and similar terms, and by picturesque, portfolio, and dilettante, together with malaria, influenza, lava, and bronze, conversazione and alfresco, poplin, and the word firm for a trading company. Many a country indeed throughout this period made a small contribution through the medium of trade and travel books. Of such were vanilla, caramel, cigar, and quadrille from Spanish, verandah from Portuguese India, shawl and carboy from Persian, albatross and candy from Arabic, mongoose, bungalow, and shampoo from India, mammoth and knout from Russian, and from China tea itself, together with pekoe, hyson, souchong, and ketchup and kaolin. From nearer home came Scandinavian to run the gauntlet, cosy, and muggy, and the old terms saga and skald, the High German cobalt, shale, quartz, and iceberg, the Dutch smuggle, schooner, and Geneva (shortened to gin in 1714), the Irish Tory and banshee,and the Scotch whisky, pibroch,and claymore.Latin, not so long before a prolific source, now contributed only a few words, including pendulum, nebula, fulcrum,and calculus before 1700, and nucleus, propaganda, ultimatum,and insomnia later, while the Greek contribution was smaller still, as with botany (1696) and bathos (1727). Of all such borrowings the foreign origin is generally clear enough at sight, except for such words from Germanic languages as smuggle and muggy, but all borrowings quickly received an English pronunciation, and one may note that even foreign personal names were anglicized as in a rhyme like that of Racine with line.
But if, with Welsted, satisfaction could be felt about the language itself, there was a growing realization that the use of the English language left much to be desired. There was often uncertainty about the correct meaning of words, and spelling, pronunciation, and grammar were all subject to variation according to the class and education of the writer or speaker. Hence arose the work of lexicographers and grammarians. The former were much concerned to register the correct spelling, and some dictionaries, such as J.K's A New English Dictionary (1702) and Dyche's Spelling Dictionary of a little later date, made that their principal aim. Nathaniel Bailey advanced further with his Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), which went into several editions and was recommended by Mrs Western in Tom Jones as the book to consult in order to learn 'a proper use of words'. Bailey was the first lexicographer to aim at including all English words. But there was still no authoritative dictionary in existence when Johnson issued his Plan in 1747, and when his Dictionary itself appeared in 1755 his achievement was considered, as indeed it was, prodigious. He aimed to include all good English words, excluding only technical or vulgar words, though he did admit many scientific words, particularly medical and botanical, and in respect of learned words his scope was too wide, for he gave many such words as cynegeticks ('the art of hunting'), enubilate, favillous,and geoponical. Some words he allowed in only with a warning, such as 'a cant word' (fiddlefaddle) or 'an old word' (gim= neat). Above all, he sought to fix the meaning or meanings of words, and to this end he added illustrative quotations ranging forward from Sir Philip Sidney. Each word, where possible, was provided with an etymology, and though many of his etymologies are even absurd in the light of modern philological studies, Johnson did make good use of the growing work of Anglo-Saxon scholars. Further, one of his aims was, of course, to fix the spelling, for, though spelling had largely been stabilized by 1660 by the efforts of the printers, a standard authority was still desirable: here Johnson tended to be conservative. Of giving pronunciation Johnson fought shy, holding that there existed such variations even among good speakers that it was impossible to indicate more than the accentuation of words — which he did. Not that accentuation was without its variations still (in 1721 Isaac Watts had printed a list of words differently accented by different educated speakers), but Johnson felt more scope for his authoritative verdict in that matter. And, the tendency running by 1780 strongly in favour of authority, in that year Thomas Sheridan, father of the dramatist, in his Complete Dictionary of the English Language ventured beyond Johnson in laying down the pronunciation too.
The grammarians especially yielded to the growing temptation to impose order. Apart from the eighteenth-century's desire for uniformity in language as in society, the utilitarian middle-class order of the day increasingly justified it, for, as men of trade and commerce made themselves more prosperous, they felt it essential that their children should live up to their rising social position. Their sons particularly, but their wives and daughters too, must speak and write genteelly and not betray themselves by vulgarisms of grammar. One of the earliest grammarians was the scholarly John Wallis, a founder of the Royal Society, with his Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae in 1653, but it was not till after 1700 that the attempt began to be made to teach English grammar, and then not in the grammar schools, which kept to Latin, but in the Dissenting academies and private schools. Locke was a pioneer in advocating the teaching of English grammar. 'It will be matter of wonder', he declared in 1693, 'why young gentlemen are forced to learn the grammars of foreign and dead languages, and are never once told of the grammar of their own tongues: they do not so much as know there is any such thing, much less is it made their business to be instructed in it.' A gentleman, he held, 'ought to study grammar amongst the other helps of speaking well... since the want of propriety and grammatical exactness is thought very misbecoming one of that rank, and usually draws on one guilty of such faults the censure of having had a lower breeding and worse company than suits with his quality'. Soon, largely from such motives of class distinction and from that of business success, the task was undertaken. In 1700 a schoolmaster called Lane wrote a grammar under the title, A Key to the Art of Letters; in 1711 John Brightland produced A Grammar of the English Tongue and James Greenwood An Essay Towards a Practical English Grammar; in 1721 Isaac Watts, the hymn-writer, published his Art of Reading and Writing English. There were others, and Johnson prefaced his Dictionary with a brief grammar.
From the beginning a problem which faced the grammarians was whether the rules of English grammar were deducible from good current usage, or whether there was a grammatical absolute ('according to the unalterable rules of right reason', as Lane declared). Wallis had based his grammar on the study of good usage. Locke believed that good grammar was the usage of good writers and speakers. We have noted the dislike by Hughes of rules for writing in general. Dr Johnson, in the matter of language as a whole, as witness in particular his attitude on pronunciation, favoured usage rather than rule; indeed, his treatment of syntax in his grammatical preface was almost contemptuous — 'our language has so little inflection or variety of terminations that its construction neither requires nor admits rules'. But other grammarians favoured rule above usage, and, worse still, in contempt of the quite different nature of the English language, they sought to force English grammar into the mould of Latin grammar. For rule there undoubtedly was a case, for, whereas an aristocrat could speak confidently in the assurance of his breeding, the new middle class would be happier if safeguarded by a grammarian's rule. For the assimilation to Latin grammar the schoolmasters were largely responsible. Locke had asserted, 'I know not why any one should waste his time and beat his head about the Latin grammar, who does not intend to be a critic, or make speeches and write despatches in it', but in this freedom of view he was not followed, and it was not unnatural that, when it was thought desirable to teach children English grammar, the drill book for that exercise should be as close as possible to the Latin. Moreover, schoolmasters, then at any rate, were lovers of rule, and so it was on the side of grammatical logic and of rule as against custom, idiom, and variety, of a Latin formalism as against English freedom that this period ended. Nor should it be forgotten that the historical study of the English language had not yet proceeded far enough to influence the grammarians of whom we are speaking, so that they worked in a real ignorance of the true nature and principles of the language they were presuming to formalize and 'correct'.
As late as 1761 Joseph Priestley, the scientist, still kept an open mind on the question of custom and use versus rule, and indeed favoured practice, for he held 'the general prevailing custom... the only standard for the time that it prevails'. But in 1762 Robert Lowth, later Bishop of London, came out definitely on the side of logical 'correctness' as against practice, and his English Grammar was very influential. Lowth employed the method of giving examples of wrong usage in order to inculcate the 'correct', and, to him, even such writers as Addison and Pope were guilty of incorrectness. From about this time, in fact, the grammarians came forth as lawgivers, claiming to decide all questions of doubtful usage and giving their verdicts in favour of a neat and logical uniformity. Lindley Murray's English Grammarof 1795 followed Lowth's example, and it achieved such pre-eminence with its repeated editions that the victory for formal rules was won for a century. It is me, you was, who did you meet, these sort of, I object to him coming,double negatives, a plural verb with a collective subject, a singular verb with a double subject, superlatives like perfectest, preterites as past participles as in An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard — such idiomatic usages and anomalies were to be no more, though they had been common in the practice of some of the best eighteenth-century authors. The rules for the correct use of shall and will were laid down. Murray, who wrote his grammar for a Quaker girls' school at York, included in it exercises in parsing as well as in correction of all kinds of errors. So far had 'the teaching of English' advanced in the course of the eighteenth century.
But it is time to consider the sounds of the spoken language. Our vowel sounds, which had undergone in the fifteenth century the great shift by which Modern English is mainly differentiated from Middle English, had by the first half of the seventeenth century approximately reached those of today. But, as is immediately noticeable from the rhymes of the poets, there were some important differences between the pronunciation of Dryden and Pope and our own. Thus we find Pope rhyming speak and take and Lady Winchilsea rhyming day and tea. Here, while present-day English has the same vowel sound in take and day, the sound commonly spelt ee has replaced the earlier sound represented by ea.In the early eighteenth century it would seem that the sound common to these three types of word (speak, take, day) was a long front vowel (slack, or more probably tense e) which was developing towards the diphthong now heard in fate and day. That the same sound is not heard now in words like speak indicates that a different development replaced that responsible for the long tense e in such eighteenth-century rhymes. This modern ee sound had clearly been developed in some areas by Elizabethan days, for Spenser could rhyme stream with seem. What happened was that gradually the speech of those who pronounced ea words with the sound represented by ee replaced in the standard speech the regularly developed long tense e. Pope could use either type (he also rhymes seat and fleet); by Johnson's time most words with ea were pronounced with the present-day ee sound. Again, there is the difference indicated by the frequent occurrence of such a rhyme as line with join. Here, too, one sound (that in line) had not quite reached the present-day stage, and the other has been replaced by a different sound from that of its normal development — modern dialect pronunciations like bile for boil show what the regular development would have been. Cowley, Dryden, Swift, and Pope readily illustrate this kind of rhyme. The stage at which these sounds rhymed in this period was that of a diphthong of which the first element was the sound in the modern but and the second short i: the first element was later retracted to give the present-day sound, but the words in which the sound was represented by the spelling oi gradually came to be pronounced as their spelling was considered to indicate, a process accomplished by 1800. This influence of spelling upon pronunciation grew only too rapidly with the growth of education from print.
Other differences of pronunciation revealed by the rhymes of poets include those arising from the shortening of long vowels. At least as late as the middle of the eighteenth century there existed a good deal of variety in pronunciation among good speakers and it was often possible to use a long or a short vowel. This is particularly noticeable in words containing the vowel spelt oo. Dryden, for instance, rhymes food, blood, and wood.Here each word contained in Middle English a long tense o, which was raised to the present-day sound in food in the fifteenth century: our sound in blood is due to an early shortening, and that in wood to a later one, but certainly until 1799 no one type of pronunciation had become received standard — indeed, by some good speakers soot was pronounced with the vowel in but as late as 1900. Again, when Dryden rhymes great and yet, and Pope beat (as past participle) with set, we see that words with the long vowel spelt ea could also be pronounced with the vowel shortened. In addition, there were many variants which have since been levelled out, but which are all regular developments of certain linguistic tendencies. Thus the rhyme of Rome with doom found as late as Collins, those of God with road and with unawed by Pope, Dryden's sense with prince and lost with boast, and the rhyming of have with words like crave and wave by many poets are only a few examples of pronunciations which had full historical justification. It should indeed be taken as a general rule that the rhymes of the poets of this period represent pronunciations both genuine and linguistically explicable as variants naturally persisting in a time when a received standard was still far from being as fixed as it is today.
Many other details deserve mention. Everyone knows the fashionable obleege of Pope's day, aping the French pronunciation, and the ousting of the regularly developed sarmon, etc., by our sermon partly perhaps as being nearer the French but chiefly from the influence of the spelling. Here it must suffice to state the general truth that in pronunciation, as in all the other aspects of language, this period was characterized by a steady approach to uniformity. Invaluable guides to the sounds of the period, in addition to the rhymes of the poets, are books like the Practical Phonography (1701) of John Jones which attempted to describe current pronunciation, and, most important perhaps of all, collections of letters and documents like the Verney Memoirs, covering 1639-1696, and the Wentworth Papers, covering 1705-1739, in which the writers often spelt words as they spoke them and not according to the conventional spelling fixed by printers, which was often remote from the writer's own speech. From such evidence it is clear that, well into the eighteenth century, these people spoke their sounds as they had developed on the lips of their forebears and not as teachers or print would prescribe. The difference in the treatment of vowels in unaccented positions is striking: ow in words like narrow was normally pronounced er; fortune was fortin and picture was pikter (even the scholarly Gray rhymes venture with enter); value and nephew were valy and nevy. Consonants too were treated with disrespect to the spelling: thus Jones in his book of 1701 lists neglect, strict, corrupt and many such words as being pronounced without the final t, and beyond, scaffold and a large number of similar words without the final d. Pope rhymed neglects with sex. Ridin not riding was the normal pronunciation of words with final ing, and Swift shows this frequently in rhyme. In the eighteenth century Lunnon was the usual pronunciation of London. Gradually, however, just as the formal grammarians put themselves forward as lawgivers, so those who wrote of pronunciation began to declare what the pronunciation ought to be. A good example was John Walker, author of a popular Rhetorical Grammar (1785), who, after abandoning the stage, lectured on elocution from about 1770. Such instructors were in general in favour of pronunciation close to the spelling, and, where words had two pronunciations, a careful one of formal speech and a slurred one of easy conversation, they insisted on the careful one. Since neither they nor those who required their teaching were of the higher class, the tendency naturally was towards a conscious refinement. In fact, we see again the joint effect of the eighteenth-century's desire for correctness, elegance, and uniformity and that of the middle class to be genteel. By the end of our period laxity in pronunciation was generally deprecated.
Even if such an important aspect of language as, among many others, change in the meaning of words has to be omitted in this brief survey (as, for instance, sensible was to lose such an ordinary eighteenth-century meaning as that of being capable of sensory or emotional reactions, and awful was to degenerate from its meanings of feeling or inspiring awe), the dawn of Anglo-Saxon studies deserves a place. Much honour is due to a small group of scholars at Oxford. The Dutchman Francis Junius, who printed the so-called Caedmon MS. in 1655, spent several years at Oxford. Somner published the first Anglo-Saxon dictionary in 1659, and George Hickes the first Anglo-Saxon grammar in 1689. Wanley made an invaluable catalogue of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, published as part II of the famous Thesaurus of Hickes. Thomas Hearne, the antiquary, printed the Battle of Maldon in 1726, five years before the manuscript was destroyed in the fire of the Cottonian library. And there was the remarkable young woman, Elizabeth Elstob, who in 1715 produced the first Anglo-Saxon grammar written in English, for that of Hickes was in Latin. She too began an edition of Ælfric's Homilies. With the death of Hickes in 1715 Anglo-Saxon studies ceased to advance and failed to reach a wide audience, but an enduring foundation had been laid, on which nineteenth-century scholars proceeded to build, so that with our fuller knowledge of our language we can see it in a truer perspective than could the eighteenth-century grammarians.
In conclusion, it is well to remember that the language of any age was always heard more upon the lips than it was set upon paper.
Therefore, though we must rely for our evidence mainly upon the written word, upon which the eighteenth-century's tendency to formalism had its fullest effect, we must not exaggerate the extent to which that formalism permeated all classes and restrained all individuals. There surely survived that freedom which Sterne suggests by his phrase 'the sportability of chitchat'. Again, there were the diarists and letter-writers too much at ease to be formal — even like Gray from whose letters his friend Mason felt it necessary to prune the slang before he published them.
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