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An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age

Jon Mee


As perhaps it always is, language in our period was taken to be a crucial index of individual, social, and national identity. Challenges to that identity were perceived as coming from many different sources in a rapidly changing society. English was increasingly being valued over the classical languages as a national treasure, though the possession of Latin and Greek remained important markers of gentility, but this development brought with it a desire to stabilize English itself into a standard or ‘classical’ form. Texts concerned with such issues became an important growth area in the eighteenth century's expanding *publishing [21] industry. Fewer than fifty writings on grammar, rhetoric, criticism, and linguistic theory seem to have been published between 1700 and 1750, but over 200 in the second half of the century. Many of these improving texts were directed at a genteel readership, especially gentlewomen, warning of the dangers of vulgarity. A smaller number were intended for the improvement of the middling sort, but most grammarians who were prepared to address this new readership insisted that it conform to the usage of the metropolitan élite. Not to use language in certain ways was to threaten the imagined community of the nation and to court exclusion from the public sphere of polite society.

In the eighteenth century, it was commonly believed that a nation's ‘genius’ could be discovered in the characteristics of its language and, conversely, that remedying defects or halting decay in the language could play its part in preserving or improving the condition of the nation. Anxieties about the proper performance of the language can be found in the new concern with sound, style, and elocution. A plethora of pronouncing dictionaries flooded the market after 1750. Thomas Sheridan (1719–88), perhaps the pre-eminent figure in the so-called ‘elocution movement’, was convinced that the standardization of English pronunciation was necessary to a nation that believed itself united as the ‘subjects of the same king’. When Sheridan, himself an Irishman, expressed his concern over the linguistic unity of the King's subjects in 1762, English was not the only language of the kingdom. The last native speaker of Cornish is believed to have died in 1777, but Welsh remained the predominant language in Wales until the late nineteenth century. The *Act of Union with Ireland only added further complications to the language map of the British Isles, but throughout the eighteenth century it was Scotland which caused most anxiety. As they had for several centuries, Lowlanders for the most part spoke Scots, a cognate language with English, which allowed them to communicate easily with their neighbours in England's northern counties. Highlanders, who more often spoke Gaelic, were unlikely to make a distinction between Scots and English speakers, and for most of the eighteenth century the Gaelic term ‘Sassenach’ was applied equally to both.

Notwithstanding the efforts of antiquarians, who in their different ways celebrated the ancient authority of the Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh tongues, in Ireland and Scotland at least strong cultural and economic pressures drove the populations towards the acquisition of English. Even Daniel *O'Connell, an Irish-speaking Catholic, believed that ‘the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great, that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of the Irish’ [see *Irish cultural revival]. In Scotland similar pressures had been leading not only to the devaluation of Gaelic but also to a desire to make Scots indistinguishable from the polite forms of metropolitan English. After the Union of 1707 those Scots eager to redefine themselves as Britons sought to excise so-called ‘scotticisms’ from their speech and, especially, their writing. Henry Home (1696–1782), Lord Kames, spoke Scots but encouraged the Scottish to use English in his Elements of Criticism (1762). Along with many other luminaries of the *Scottish Enlightenment, Kames subscribed to Thomas Sheridan's Course of Lectures on Elocution, delivered in 1761 to an Edinburgh audience anxious ‘to cure themselves of a provincial or vicious pronunciation’.

Sheridan believed that ‘even in England itself for want of such a method, there were such various dialects spoken, that persons born and bred in different shires, could scarcely any more understand each others speech, than they could that of a foreigner’. Quite apart from the issue of regional dialects, literacy was one of the important ways in which the language community within England itself was divided. The best available evidence suggests that while around 70 per cent of English men and 90 per cent of English women could not write their own names in the mid-seventeenth century, by the middle of the next century the figures had changed to 40 per cent and just over 60 per cent. On the basis of material drawn from the signatures required by Hardwick's Marriage Act (1753), literacy seems to have stagnated at around these levels for the next century or so.

However, the figures must be treated warily. First, there is the question of what ‘literate’ means. In the eighteenth century the term ‘literacy’ was continuing a process of evolution which was taking it away from the medieval association with the possession of Latin towards a broader definition based on the ability to read and write. Even so, there was no consensus as to what level of ability qualified as literacy. The evidence of the marriage registers as to who could sign their name does not tell us who had a practical proficiency in writing. Moreover, the writing skills of the tradesman might stop well short, for instance, of the expressive usage of the gentleman. Nor does the evidence take account of the potential gap between reading and writing, skills that were not always taught together, especially not to girls, who might only encounter writing as an optional extra [see *female education]. Only in the nineteenth century, when the two skills were more often taught together, does the gap between male and female statistics close. Second, the statistics mask social and geographical variations. The urban population became increasingly literate, for instance, while the rural population seems to have fallen back, although it should not be assumed that the inability to read and write was necessarily experienced as a handicap in communities where scriveners could often be found to provide for the needs of their illiterate peers. William *Cobbett pointed out as late as 1831, in A Spelling Book with Appropriate Lessons in Reading, that ‘great numbers of people are very clever at their different trades, and earn a great deal of money, and bring up their families very well, without even knowing how to read’. Yet oral and literary cultures were in no way definitively cut off from each other. Books could be read aloud to groups, as proclamations often were in public places, while *ballads from the oral tradition could draw on printed sources, themselves often collected from itinerant singers. *Popular culture [23] took both oral and printed forms throughout the period. Attitudes to whether mass literacy was desirable or not varied greatly, especially in the wake of the *French Revolution. For some commentators a literate population produced the threat of a revolutionary mass political moment. Some anti-Jacobin writers such as T. J. *Mathias believed that Thomas *Paine's Rights of Man (1791) had not just spread subversion but also a dangerous literacy, whereas Hannah *More believed that reading, properly monitored, would provide a channel through which the antidotes of *religion [10] and morals could be administered.

The spectre of an increasingly literate population, whether real or imagined, desirable or undesirable, helps explain the urgency of debates from the middle of the eighteenth century about what constituted ‘correct’ English. While much of this writing was unapologetically prescriptive, it usually deferred to Horace's maxim ‘use is the sole arbiter and norm of speech’. ‘Usage’ itself, however, was not an uncontested term, and frequent parallels were drawn with arguments over the definition of ‘the people’ in constitutional debates [see *class, 15]. The locus classicus for the analogy drawn between the state of the language and the state of the constitution was the third book of *Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). The theory of language set out in this work, no less than Locke's constitutional theory, had the notion of ‘consent’ at its basis. Locke argued that words were not the signs of things but of ideas. These signs were not naturally tied to their meanings. Language, according to Locke, is a social compact—the product of an agreement that words should denote certain ideas. Consequently, grammar was the product not of what ought to apply rationally, so-called ‘analogy’, but of customary practice. However, this emphasis begged the question of exactly whose practice was designated as customary, just as Locke's theory of government raised the issue of exactly whose consent was necessary for constitutional rule. Locke's discussion of ‘common usage’ made it possible to argue that the usage of the vulgar could have no part in determining common standards.

The importance of ‘common usage’, based on the authority of Locke, frequently coalesced with the idea that the language was a reflection of the national genius of the English people. The freeborn Englishman was widely held to have a peculiar predisposition to liberty. A similar notion of the national genius was said to underpin the perceived irregularity of the English tongue, though by no means all writers viewed the perception positively. Robert Lowth (1710–87), in his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), made a distinction between ‘practice’, which ‘oftentimes offends against every part of Grammar’, and the true ‘nature’ of the language. ‘Practice’ here comprised even ‘the English Language as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writing of our most approved authors’. Appearing in twenty-two editions before 1795 alone, the book's grammar was perhaps the most influential of the eighteenth century (its impact endured well into the nineteenth century through the incorporation of much of its detail and approach into Lindley Murray's (1745–1826) grammar discussed below). Yet despite its popularity as a practical grammar, Lowth's theoretical distinction between ‘practice’ and the true ‘nature’ of the language was already sounding rather old-fashioned. Lowth's philosophy of language was derived from James Harris (1709–80), who regarded languages as manifestations of a universal grammar. This universal grammar was taken to have its basis in pure acts of mind, although in practice the classical languages were taken to offer the best available model for it. However, by 1776 grammarians such as George Campbell (1719–96) could bluntly say: ‘there cannot be such a thing as an universal grammar, unless there were such a thing as an universal language.’ Correctness was increasingly seen as a matter of faithfulness to the peculiar idioms of English, rather than to the authority of a universal grammar. Nevertheless, most writers on language agreed that the usage of only the most polite sections of society could serve as a model, and appeals to common usage usually took a very restricted definition of what ‘customary’ meant: as Campbell claimed, the

tattle of children hath a currency, but, however universal their manner of corrupting words may be among themselves, it can never establish what is accounted use in language. Now, what children are to men, that precisely the ignorant are to the knowing.

Hundreds of dictionaries and grammars insisted that the ‘customary’ language of the metropolis, usually manifested in the best authors, was the true standard of common usage. Usually ‘customary language’ did not refer to contemporary writing or speech, nor was it too archaic. Campbell identified ‘reputable custom’ with the writing of the period after the *Glorious Revolution of 1688 and prior to any living author; Queen Anne's reign was a more general favourite, but the underlying principle was common to most late-eighteenth-century writers on language.

It was a principle given a particularly powerful and influential form in the middle of the century by Samuel *Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson's use of literary illustrations implied that a native English tradition should determine correct usage. In practice these authorities were mainly drawn from the literature of the previous century, a third of them from the works of *Shakespeare, *Milton, and Dryden alone, which Johnson regarded as ‘the wells of English undefiled’. Where the French academies attempted to regulate language by means of rational principles, Johnson conformed to ‘the spirit of English liberty’ by offering the models of great minds expressing the nation's genius. Nevertheless, Johnson's appeal to custom invoked a specific understanding of usage in which the need to escape foreign imports and local peculiarities of speech was emphatically linked to the need to avoid the ‘fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay’. The model speaker was a gentleman, a man with a classical education, whose reading was informed by a knowledge of the ‘best’ English writers and whose private income and stake in the land could guarantee that his language was not infected by idiosyncrasies related to fashionable taste, the pursuit of a particular trade, or confinement to a particular locality. Originally, in the Plan of a Dictionary (1747), Johnson had seemed confident of his ability ‘to fix the English language’. The completed project is presented with a more melancholy air which mourns the inevitability of change in a living language. Nevertheless, Johnson tried to slow the decay. Language was to be defended against both the unnatural changes of rationalizing reformers and the debasing corruptions of the lower classes. The Dictionary was to fix what was known so that common usage would become a matter of authoritative record rather than a matter of what people wrote or said. Just as Johnson's political pamphlets sought to safeguard English liberties by preserving existing constitutional arrangements, so too his Dictionary sought to oppose the permanent record of the English classics to ‘the boundless chaos of a living speech’. Indeed, the parallel was made clear when he wrote that ‘tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution; let us make some struggles for our language.’

Johnson's view that the language was permanently under threat from decay was widely shared. Corruption was identified, for instance, with servants who might introduce their fallen speech into the security of the nursery. For not dissimilar reasons, writings on correctness had long been directed at gentlewomen, who were seen as particularly liable to introduce imperfections. R. B. *Sheridan's comic character Mrs Malaprop, with her tendency to confuse similar-sounding words, is one of many literary examples from the eighteenth century of this kind of perception. The very first English dictionaries, published at the beginning of the previous century, had frequently been directed at young ladies in an attempt to regulate such errors. The attempt was to continue in the eighteenth century through books such as G. N. Ussher's Elements of English Grammar (1785), designed specifically for ‘Ladies’ Boarding Schools', although the task was not made too difficult: ‘to render that study as easy and as useful to them as possible … all abstract terms that could be dispensed with, should be rejected; and all references to the learned languages omitted.’ Writing in this vein frequently took Johnson's Dictionary as the definitive statement of customary usage which had to be defended against the encroachments of innovation and vulgarity. John Walker (1732–1807) wanted the language to ‘remain as it stands at present [in 1775] in the monument of English philology erected by Johnson’. Walker was one of many in the elocution movement who presented himself as extending to pronunciation Johnson's success in providing a stabilizing authority for the language. His Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) acknowledged the authority of custom, but followed Johnson and others in denying that custom was the same thing as ‘the usage of the greater part of speakers’. No usage which ‘is reprobated by the polite’ was likely to be entertained at the beginning of the 1790s, a decade in which the relationship between language and politics became more explicit than ever before.

The vogue for ‘unnecessary innovation’ against which Walker was writing was associated with men like Joseph *Priestley, innovators in language as well as in politics. Priestley's approach to questions of correctness was a flexible one. He was prepared to appeal to rational analogy which would make the language consistent with itself in questions of disputed usage, although analogies with the classical languages were explicitly ruled out in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1768). But the final decision had to wait until ‘all-governing custom shall declare in favour of the one or other’. Priestley's confidence in the rational evolution of human history meant that he assumed common usage would eventually come to disown irrational imperfections. As part of the collective effort towards creating this enlightened state, it was open to anyone to suggest improvements or alterations: ‘it is vain to pretend that any person may not attempt to introduce whatever he thinks to be an improvement.’ Priestley's desire for rational reform was always hedged about with a democratic spirit which insisted that the ‘general prevailing custom, wherever it happens to be, can be the only standard for the time it prevails’. Its claim that the authority of ‘custom’ cannot reach beyond the grave offers an antidote to Johnson's conservatism, and anticipates Paine's rejection of *Burke's appeal to immemorial custom in defence of the constitution. Nevertheless even Priestley was willing to characterize certain kinds of usage as ‘too low and vulgar’.

Collectors of popular antiquities, such as Francis *Grose, frequently of fered a more spirited defence of class and regional dialects. Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) stands in direct, perhaps parodying, relationship to Johnson's Dictionary. Where Johnson saw the speech of the common people as ‘fugitive’ and not worthy of record, Grose celebrated that mutability as the product of English liberty, claiming that ‘the freedom of thought and speech arising from, and privileged by our constitution, gives a force and poignancy to the expressions of our common people, not to be found under arbitrary governments’. Grose's use of the word ‘classical’ seems a deliberate challenge to Johnson's desire to find precedence only in high literary forms. Grose boasts that his examples ‘have been drawn from the most classical authorities; such as soldiers on the long march, seamen at the cap-stern, ladies disposing of their fish … and the colloquies of the Gravesend-boat’. As a friend and patron of Robert *Burns, he was also active in encouraging kinds of cultural practice which refused to accept a narrow notion of correct usage. Grose's *antiquarianism [35] was part of a tradition which was to include figures like Francis *Douce, Joseph *Ritson, and William *Hone, and which sought to use its researches in of fering a broader definition of the national language and culture. Others, such as Thomas *Spence, wished to reform the language in ways that would make it easier for the uneducated to participate in public affairs. Like Ritson, Spence wanted to reform spelling so that it was less mystifying to the unlearned. He believed that traditional orthography concealed ‘the true pronunciation from all, except a few well-educated natives’. Spence played a committed part in the radical politics of the 1790s, publishing some of his pamphlets in his phonetic spelling system, and he was not alone in making language a political issue in that revolutionary decade and its aftermath. John *Thelwall's involvement in the elocution movement after 1800 and William Cobbett's interest in grammar had similar origins.

Perhaps the most influential of the radical critiques of linguistic ideas published at the end of the eighteenth century was John Horne *Tooke's Ἔπεα πτερόεντα, Or Diversions of Purley (1786–1805). Tooke's interest in language was explicitly bound up with his politics, reflecting an awareness of the way that language could be used to exert political control. His concern with theories of language had its immediate origin in his trial for seditious libel in 1777. His experience in the law courts convinced him that language was an important instrument through which the authority of the élite was maintained. Diversions sets itself up as an attack on what it refers to throughout as ‘metaphysics’, an attitude to language which Tooke identified with James Harris and James *Burnett, Lord Monboddo. The fundamental premise of the book was that parts of speech represented neither categories of things nor acts of minds. Ultimately Tooke traced all parts of speech to the noun and the verb. Nouns and verbs, the originals of all the parts of speech, did reflect mental acts in so far as they were the result of sense impressions, but with this change in perspective, language could be seen as the product of a material context. Where Burnett had claimed that language was the artificial construction of extraordinarily gifted individuals, versions of himself cast in primitive times, Tooke believed that ‘artless men’ had developed language. The Diversions abolished the distinction between a language of mind—associated with the classical educated élite—and the ‘cant’ which Johnson had argued was mired in the peculiarities of trade and region. Reinforcing Tooke's philosophical account of language was a historical insistence that Anglo-Saxon was the foundation of modern English. Where philosophers like Harris and Burnett wanted an English which reflected what they took to be the rational purity of a universal grammar derived by analogy from the classical languages, Tooke celebrated the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. The occlusion of these origins was for Tooke the linguistic equivalent of the Norman usurpation of ancient English liberties that was central to the radical political histories produced by Paine and other radicals [see *constitutionalism]. English as a language was effectively under the Norman yoke, and Tooke set out to free it by revealing its bases in the common language of the Anglo-Saxons.

Perhaps because of its often whimsical manner—its Greek title belying the English focus of much of its content—most reviewers chose to see the politics of Diversions as an unfortunate excrescence rather than as an essential part of the book's theory of language. By representing Tooke's dialogues as contributions to ideas about the philosophy of mind, the socio-political implications of their materialism could be played down by reviewers. From this perspective, even conservative reviews like the British Critic could paint Diversions in a positive light. An important exception to this response was Dugald *Stewart. For Stewart, etymology was a dangerous science when it insisted on the material basis of language. Where Tooke believed he could trace the development of words back to their Anglo-Saxon origins, Stewart insisted on ‘the obscurity of their history’. Using a phrase resonant of the conservatism of both Johnson and Burke, Stewart argued that the authority of language consisted in ‘the sanction of immemorial use’. Custom for Stewart was impervious to historical change.

Stewart was right to be nervous of Diversions in so far as it influenced a generation of radical writers about language. Perhaps the most lasting result of this influence is to be found in the writings of Noah Webster (1758–1843), which had a direct practical effect on the development of American English. Webster argued for the development of an American English that would be distinct from what he saw as the corrupted state of British English. Webster was one among many spelling reformers in the late eighteenth century who believed that orthography should have a clearer relation to pronunciation. He argued that the gap between written and spoken English was perpetuated and extended by writers like Johnson, who sought to keep knowledge in the hands of the élite. Compared to many of the other spelling reformers active in this period, Webster's changes were relatively modest—which may well account for his success in establishing ‘honor’, ‘center’, and ‘defense’ as standard spellings in American English. Webster justified such innovations as a return to a purer English, the language of the American yeoman farmer, which pre-dated what he characterized as the aristocratic corruption of eighteenth-century Britain. At times he even went so far as to suggest that the contemporary dialects of the unlearned were closer to the purest forms; more often he was intolerant about variation within American English, since he was concerned with developing a national standard in opposition to British English. Historically, Webster followed Tooke in tracing this purer language to the Anglo-Saxon: ‘the common people, descendants of the Saxons, use principally words derived from the native language of their ancestors, with few derivatives of the foreign tongues, for which they have no occasion.’

A similar set of ideas about language was evident in a number of texts published in Britain in the 1790s. Paine's Rights of Man, for instance, provides a virtual compendium of what Tooke had called ‘Metaphysical [that is, verbal] Imposture’: the process by which the language operated in the interests of the powerful to exclude the unlearned from the public sphere. Perhaps the most innovative dimension of Paine's book is its attempt to provide a political thesis in a popular style. If Rights of Man repeatedly returns to the idea of the usurpation of Anglo-Saxon liberty by Norman oligarchy, so too its style implicitly signals that the language of the common people could be a valid medium and instrument of political change. Paine's is perhaps the most important application of Tooke's thesis that there was no special language of mind enabling the discussion of issues of national importance, but it had many imitators. In its very form, for instance, Charles *Pigott's much-reprinted Political Dictionary (1795) implied the importance of language in determining the political nation. Its contents sought to redefine a political vocabulary, in ironic terms, from a perspective which implied that there existed an entirely different and equally valid language of politics in which, for instance, ‘Church’ could be glossed as ‘a patent for hypocrisy; the refuge of sloth, ignorance and superstition, the corner-stone of tyranny’.

Where writers like Johnson had seen the vernacular as corrupt and mutable, Paine and Tooke presented it as the repository of the true English spirit of liberty. As such, they were the representatives of a broad movement which sought to widen definitions of British cultural identity in the last decades of the eighteenth century. It was a movement which received its most famous, if rather attenuated, literary expression in the Preface to the second edition of *Wordsworth and *Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1800). The Preface calls for poetic language to remodel itself not on the ‘reputable custom’ which writers like Johnson and Campbell believed to be the highest form of language, but on the basis of ‘a more permanent and a far more philosophical language’ used by ‘rustics’. According to Wordsworth, these rustics, rather like Webster's yeomanry, were ‘less under the action of social vanity’ than their urban counterparts. Their language was more philosophical and permanent because they ‘hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived’. Tooke had argued that language had its origins in sense impressions, which gave rise to the nouns and verbs which were the bases of all the other parts of speech. Much of Wordsworth's early poetry seemed to seek to recreate this conversation with the source of language. The radical origins of this poetic theory are clear enough, but its enunciation in the Lyrical Ballads seems less directly political than Paine's or Tooke's use of such ideas. Certainly Coleridge was unhappy about its democratic implications from as early as 1802, when he dissented from Wordsworth's ‘daring Humbleness of Language’. In the Biographia Literaria (1817) Coleridge was suggesting that the language of rustics was not one which could seriously qualify as philosophical and permanent:

A rustic's language, purified from all provincialism and grossness, and so far reconstructed as to be made consistent with the rules of grammar (which are in essence no other than the laws of universal logic, applied to Psychological materials), will not differ from the language of any other man of common-sense, however learned or refined he may be, except as far as the notions, which the rustic has to convey, are fewer and more indiscriminate.

Although elsewhere the Biographia castigates the overly elaborate speech of the refined, it is clear that Coleridge regarded the speech of rustics as inferior to the educated and sensitive man of common sense whose usage reflected the universal rules of grammar. Contrary to the challenge to the Johnsonian hegemony put forward in the Preface's redefinition of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge now found that ‘the best part of human language, properly so called, is derived from reflections on the acts of mind itself’. Indeed, these sentiments sound more like Lowth and Harris than many of the other writings on language theory published in the intervening fifty or so years.

Nevertheless, even while Coleridge was writing his Biographia, voices continued to be heard for whom language and culture were not solely to be defined in terms of the usage of the élite. William Cobbett, for instance, continued to write about language in the radical tradition. The influence of Webster and Tooke is apparent in the articles he wrote from America discussing the relationship between grammar and class for the Political Register. These articles culminated in A Grammar of the English Language (1818), which represented the issue of language as central to any attempt to redefine the political nation. At every turn, even in the illustrations he supplied to particular points of grammar, Cobbett made it clear that language was a political issue:

We are sometimes embarrassed to fix precisely on the nominative, when a sort of addition is made to it by words expressing persons or things that accompany it: as, “Sidmouth, with Oliver the spy, have brought Brandreth to the block”. We hesitate to determine, whether Sidmouth alone is the nominative, or whether the nominative includes Oliver.

Cobbett's grammar was written specifically to enable labourers to participate in politics. For Cobbett, language was not debased by the usage of the lower orders, as it had been for Johnson and Coleridge, rather it was the use of language to sustain an unjust political system and to exclude the people from participation, which was genuinely corrupt and corrupting.

Cobbett's grammar was extremely successful. It sold 5,000 copies in two weeks, 50,000 by 1822, 100,000 by 1834. The contrast with its main competitor, Lindley Murray's (1745–1826) English Grammar (1795), is instructive. Both were popular texts in the sense that they were oriented towards readers outside the educated élite. Murray presented his readers with the task of conforming to stable grammatical truths. Carefully emphasizing the unoriginality of his approach, he commented: ‘little can be expected from a new compilation, besides a careful selection of the most useful matter, and some degree of improvement in the mode of adapting it to the understanding, and the gradual progress of learners.’ For Cobbett, this approach encouraged an uncritical acceptance of the authority of the élite in both language and politics; it ‘inculcates passive obedience and softly promotes the cause of corruption’. Cobbett's presentation of his own material was very different. Not only did his grammar refer constantly to the role of language in politics, it also implied the validity of the existing knowledge of his popular readership. ‘I need not tell you’, he wrote, ‘that I was working means the same as I worked, only that the former supposes that something else was going on at the same time.’

Nevertheless it was Murray who ultimately had the more enduring influence. The 1818 abridgement of his grammar went into 120 editions of 100,000 copies each. Over 300 different editions have been recorded in total. Its lasting status is illustrated by passing allusions to Murray in any number of Victorian literary works, including Charles *Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9) and George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871–2). Murray's declared aim was to encourage learning and virtue together, and to this end he was careful ‘not only to avoid every example and illustration which might have an improper effect on the minds of youth; but also to introduce, on many occasions, such as have a moral and religious tendency’. Murray no less than Cobbett was aware of the social and political significance of language—its importance as an indicator of moral and cultural value. Despite all the challenges mounted against the authority of the élite, a process of standardization continued powerfully to enforce the ideas of propriety promoted by Johnson and Lowth and transmitted through popular texts like Murray's grammar. If modern historians of nationalism are right to suggest that the period ended with an expanded notion of who constituted the nation, one of the prices of entry was conformity to an image of the language which depended on a very restricted definition of ‘usage’.


Barrell, J., ‘The Language Properly So-Called: The Authority of Common Usage’, in his English Literature in History 1730–80: An Equal Wide Survey, 1983; Barry, J., ‘Literacy and Literature in Popular Culture: Reading and Writing in Historical Perspective’, in T. Harris, ed., Popular Culture in England, c. 1500–1850, London, 1995; Cohen, M., Sensible Words: Linguistic Practice in England, 1640–1785, Baltimore & London, 1977; Colley, L., Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, New Haven, Conn., 1992; Cressy, D., ‘Literacy in Context: Meaning and Measurement in Early Modern England’, in J. Brewer & R. Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods, London, 1993; Crowley, T., Language in History: Theories and Texts, London, 1996; Leonard, S. A., The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, 1700–1800, New York, 1962; Simpson, D., The Politics of American English, 1776–1850, New York & Oxford, 1986; Smith, O., The Politics of Language 1791–1819, Oxford, 1984; Vincent, D., Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914, Cambridge, 1989.

Jon Mee