Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How was the Temper of the Eighteen Century English Society reflected in English language?

The English people during the first half of the 18th century, which is popularly known as the Augustan age, developed a sense of order or uniformity under the classical influence. This sense of uniformity was also reflected in the changes of the English language. As we know that there were not proper forms of English language. People wanted to fix and refine the rules of grammars, vocabulary and verbs. That time people also took inspiration from Italy and France.

The first half of the eighteenth century is commonly designated in histories of literature as the Augustan Age in England. The principle characteristics of this age which affected the course of the English language emerged early and maintained their influence throughout the century. In England the age was characterized by a search for stability. One of the first characteristics to be mentioned is a strong sense of order and the value of regulation. Adventurous individualism and the spirit of independence characteristic of the previous era gave way to a desire for system and regularity. This involves conformity to a standard that the consensus recognizes as good. It sets up correctness as an ideal and attempts to formulate rules or principles by which correctness may be defined and achieved. The most important consideration in the foundation of this standard is reason.

The spirit of scientific rationalism in philosophy was reflected in many other domains of thought. A great satisfaction was felt in things that could be logically explained and justified. The powerful new current of scientific rationalism swept away the firmly grounded reverence for classical literature. Not only in literature but also in language Latin was looked upon as a model. It is easy to see how a standard having its basis in regularity, justified by reason, and supported by classical authority might be regarded as approaching perfection. We can say during this age the classical support combined with  reason gave the model of the perfect taste. Eighteenth-century English people were increasingly conscious of their own achievements, judgment and thought that their own ideals could be erected into something like a permanent standard.

Its reflection in the Attitude toward the Language:

The intellectual tendencies here noted are seen quite clearly in the eighteenth-century efforts to standardize, refine, and fix the English language. In the period under consideration discussion of the language takes a new turn. Previously interest had been shown chiefly in such questions as whether English was worthy of being used for writings in which Latin had long been traditional, whether the large additions being made to the vocabulary were justified, and whether a more adequate system of spelling could be introduced. Now for the first time attention was turned to the grammar and it was discovered that English had no grammar. In English everything was uncertain. One learned to speak and write as one learned to walk, and in many matters of grammatical usage there was much variation even among educated people. This was clearly distasteful to an age that desired above all else an orderly universe.

Uncertanity was not the only fault that eighteenth century found with English. It was subject of frequent lament for some time the language had been steadily going down. In its effort to set up a standard of correctness in language the rationalistic spirit of the eighteenth century showed itself in the attempt to settle disputed points logically, that is, by simply reasoning about them, often arriving at entirely false conclusions. The respect for authoritative example, especially for classical example, takes the form of appeals to the analogy of Latin, whereas a different manifestation of the respect for authority is at the bottom of the belief in the power of individuals to legislate in matters of language and accounts for the repeated demand for an English Academy. Finally it is an idea often expressed that English has been and is being daily corrupted, that it needs correction and refinement, and that when the necessary reforms have been effected it should be fixed permanently and protected from change.

In other words, it was desired in the eighteenth century to give the English language a polished, rational, and permanent form.

To sum up,  Eighteenth-century attempts to codify the English language and to direct its course fall under three main heads:(1) to reduce the language to rule and set up a standard of correct usage; (2) to refine it - that is, to remove supposed defects and introduce certain improvements; and (3) to fix it permanently in the desired form. 


A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.