Essay on the Historical Background of English in the Augustan Age (1650-1800)

The Augustan Age in the history of English was, however, an age in which most of the exalted personalities in literature wanted to “fix” the language. By “fixing” the language they meant the following four things:

(i) Most of the eighteenth century stalwarts had the mistaken notion that in the name of change and refinement the English language was being corrupted every day. Jonathan Swift, for example, thought that “its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many instances it offends against every Part of Grammar”.

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In his Defence of the Epilogue, Dryden expressed similar unhappiness about those “who corrupt our English idiom by mixing it too much with French”. In one of his essays in the Spectator, Addison complained about an increasing use of contracted forms like mayn’t and won’t which had “untuned our Language and clogged it with Consonants” and, similarly, in his Essay upon Projects (1697), Daniel Defoe complained about the inundation of swear words.

These authors were not against changes leading to greater sophistication and refinement; they were only against those changes which, in their view, only led to an unfortunate abuse of the language.

Most eighteenth-century writers and scholars in Britain had a sound knowledge of Latin. Latin was the language of scholarship in Europe those days, and so knowledge of Latin was an unstated pre-requisite for recognition as a scholar.

Because of that attitudinal climate, most eighteenth century scholars took Latin to be their ideal as a language. By the eighteenth century Latin had ceased to be the language of day-to-day oral communication and was, like Sanskrit in India today, only a language of ancient wisdom.

When a language reaches that stage in its history, it becomes a fixed, regulated and invariant language. Changes take place only when a language is in a wide day-to-day use by a large community consisting of people with different kinds of preferences for usage.

But the eighteenth century scholars mistakenly thought that English, a living language, could be fixed like Latin. In this connection Swift said the following:

I see no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing: for we find many examples to the contrary.

(ii) As has been pointed out earlier, in Shakespeare’s writings and, similarly, in the writings of his contemporaries, there were equally acceptable variants of the spelling and the morphological formation of the same word and, similarly, there were equally acceptable variants of many grammatical structures.

Eighteenth century scholars wanted to fix the English language by declaring one of the variants to be correct and the others to be sub-standard, vulgar and, therefore, unacceptable.

(iii) Most of the eighteenth century scholars felt that as the recent changes in the English language were mostly of an unwanted nature, they should take earlier forms of English as their models for purity and correctness. Dryden was of the view that it was “from Chaucer” that “the purity of the English tongue began”.

For Swift the period in the history of English which could be considered a model for eighteenth century writers was the Elizabethan period, the golden period of Renaissance in the history of English. The writers whom Dr. Johnson wanted to accept as the model for eighteenth century English were writers before the Restoration. In this connection he said:

I have studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from the writers before the restoration whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled.

These authors thought that when fixing the English language they should take not the current form of English but its earlier variety as the model.

(iv) Eighteenth century scholars felt that although the English vocabulary was rich enough to express almost any shade of thought and feeling, some people in Britain were unnecessarily borrowing words and phrases from French because of their fascination for French art and culture.

This sentiment against borrowing was shared by all those who wanted to fix the English language. Defoe, for example, felt that “using and introducing foreign terms of art or foreign words into our speech while our language labours under no penury or scarcity of words” was “an intolerable grievance”. In this connection he further added the following:

I cannot approve of their way of refining, who corrupt our English idiom by mixing it too much with French.

Campbell expressed a similar sentiment and said the following:

Nay, our language is in greater danger of being overwhelmed by an inundation of foreign words, than of any other species of destruction.

Addison, too, was of the same view and suggested that some people should be officially entrusted with the task of ensuring that no French words and phrases were being unnecessarily borrowed. Like Defoe, Dryden and Campbell, he wanted to completely stop the process of borrowing from French so that the English language could exert and invigorate its own native resources for vocabulary expansion. He said:

I have often wished that, as in our constitution there are several persons whose business is to watch over our laws, our liberties, our commerce, certain men might be set apart as superintendents of our language, to hinder any words of a foreign coin from passing among us; and in particular to prohibit any French phrases from becoming current in this kingdom, when those of our own stamp are altogether as valuable.