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Polishing the myths

The commercial side of politeness

The Pretenders to polish and refine [our Language], have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities.

—Jonathan Swift, A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, 1712


My interpretation of Swift’s Proposal in chapter 7 reveals that his complaint is not primarily what James Milroy calls “the battle against evil and corruption” if “evil and corruption” are perceived as decay in the standard of English used by his contemporaries. In the Proposal Swift explicitly uses a nexus of myths about the English language discursively to belittle his political opponents. Within the metaphor of language as a living organism, a state of maturity must be reached before decay can set in, and Swift explicitly states in the Proposal that English has not yet reached that state. One could of course argue that maturity is not equivalent to perfection, and this would open the way to interpreting Swift as suggesting that the English language, now that it has reached maturity, needs to be perfected. But this would hardly be equivalent to saying that Swift is complaining about English, despite his open declaration in the second paragraph of the Proposal that this is his intent.

This chapter is an adaptation and extension of an article written for publication in the journal Pragmatics 9(1), 5-20, titled “Language and politeness in early eighteenth century Britain”.

The complaint as such is levelled more at his political enemies and erstwhile friends Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Framing the Proposal as a complaint creates a convenient smokescreen to veil his political invective, and his major goal is to criticise, in a political framework, the claims made by these writers in the Tatler and the Spectator to present examples of polite behaviour. The “improvements” that Swift berates lie within the discourse of polishing and refining the language, the ideology of politeness. My focus in this chapter will thus be on how the nexus of myths that he uses in the Proposal are part of a wider discourse beginning at the end of the seventeenth century through which the ideology of politeness is constructed. I argue that the myths are “polished” to support this ideology, and my wider purpose is to show how the ideology itself became part of a redefinition of social class in Britain during the eighteenth century that had a crucial impact on attitudes towards language in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am thus concerned with a brief but very significant phenomenon in the cultural history of the English language, the eighteenth-century obsession with politeness and the prescriptive grammarian’s urge to “fix”, or, as Swift would say, “ascertain”, the English language.

Milroy and Milroy (1999) have called the urge to standardise English “the ideology of the standard”, and in line with the blueprint set out in chapter 1, we could say that “the time was ripe” for this discourse archive to emerge. But we need to see the emergence of the archive as being driven by the obsession with politeness (Watts 2002, 2003a), which, at least from the point of view of language, converged on the nexus of language myths discussed in chapter 5. In forging and interweaving these ideologies in the eighteenth century, creative writers, literary critics, grammarians and other writers on language were involved in constructing the emergent standard language as a “natural” feature of polite society. In doing so, they paved the way for the unnatural, social construction of oral “standard English”. Contrary to what we might assume if we run the conceptual metaphor suggested in figure 5.1 in chapter 5, the movement towards standardising English was not a natural process. “Polite society” was an unnatural construct. As Swift claims in the Proposal, “with all the real good Qualities of our Country, we are naturally not very Polite”.

One illustration of what is meant by the expression “polishing the myths” can be found in Samuel Johnson’s work in the mid-eighteenth century. Johnson, the “father” of the English dictionary, was not just a dictionary writer; he was also a poet, an essayist and a literary critic. In 1747, when Johnson was gathering his ideas and materials for the dictionary, he published The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. In this plan, or, as Swift might say, “project”, he states that the major aims of the dictionary are “to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom” and “to fix the English language”. The two aims are firmly embedded within the language purity myth and the immutability myth. To achieve these aims, it was his intention to select “the words and phrases used in the general intercourse of life, or found in the works of those we commonly stile polite

writers”. Both myths are guided by the eighteenth-century concept of politeness, although in the first 60 years of the century, “polishers” of the language were more concerned with written than with oral language. Like many other critics in the first half of the eighteenth century, Johnson assumed that English had already achieved a level of purity and perfection, and they were concerned that it should be prevented from changing, since “all change is of itself evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage”. The “polite writers” to whom Johnson refers are at one and the same time, in his eyes, “the best writers”, although we learn next to nothing in The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language about what makes them “best”. Beyond this, however, the dictionary also aims to achieve the equivalent of Boileau’s proposal to the Academie Frangaise that “they should review all their polite writers, and correct such impurities as might be found in them, that their authority might not contribute, at any distant time, to the depravation of the language”.

When it was published in 1755, the Dictionary took a more liberal view of change in language, and no attempt was made to “correct impurities” in any “polite” writer’s work. Looked at from our present-day perspective, it seems preposterous to imagine that a linguist should castigate an author for mistakes in his grammar or lexis, let alone claim the right to correct any such “mistakes”. But throughout the eighteenth century, criticism of the “best” authors—the “polite” authors—by grammarians and other language “experts” was relatively common. We can perhaps excuse Johnson, since he was himself a poet and essayist, but when we read in Bishop Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1761) the statement that “It will evidently appear from these Notes, that our best Authors for want of some rudiments of this kind [i.e. rudiments of English grammar] have sometimes fallen into mistakes, and been guilty of palpable errors in point of Grammar. (viii-ix)”, we can perhaps be excused for inferring that grammarians placed themselves above the “best authors”. The notes that Lowth refers to are copious notes placed at the foot of most of the pages of the grammar illustrating and explaining for the benefit of the nonpolite reader “mistakes” made by authors such as Pope, Addison, Milton and even the Authorised Version of the Bible.

Nor should we underestimate the influence of grammarians on authors. Arnovick (1999: 45-47) discusses Swift’s “corrections” in his use of the modal verbs “will” and “shall” in the manuscript versions of his humorous Directions to Servants (1731). She attributes this to the influence of the prescriptive grammarians of the early eighteenth century:

Swift’s practice of revising and correcting questionable usage substantiates the usage quandaries troubling eighteenth-century writers. The dean’s uncertainty also underscores the practical need shared by others writing English. Their requirement is satisfied by the grammars. Where common use is proscribed, correct use is prescribed and praised.

But who were the “polite” writers referred to by Johnson and Lowth? What did the term “polite”, here in reference to writers, mean throughout the eighteenth century? Why were grammarians so concerned that their “best” authors should write “polite language”, and what gave them the authority to decide on this? What effect did this insistence on authority have on the emergence of standard English? Why is it important, in tracing out these cultural developments in the emergence of the standard, to consider works of literature and the work of literary critics? To be able to answer any of these questions, we first need to understand how the term “politeness” was understood in the eighteenth century, and to acquire that understanding, we need to reach back into the seventeenth century.

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