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A PROPOSAL FOR CORRECTING, IMPROVING,
AND ASCERTAINING THE
IN A LETTER TO THE MOST HONOURABLE ROBERT EARL
OF OXFORD AND MORTIMER, LORD HIGH TREASURER
OF GREAT BRITAIN
This letter was addressed to Lord Oxford in February, 1711-12, and printed in the following May. It is the only composition to which Swift put his name, and is also interesting as an early attempt to import the principle of the Académie Française into England. Some of the historical parallels have been omitted, together with part of the too effusive panegyric upon Harley, in order to bring the piece within due compass.
A PROPOSAL FOR CORRECTING,
IMPROVING, AND ASCERTAINING THE ENGLISH TONGUE
THE period wherein the English tongue received
most improvement I take to commence with the beginning of queen Elizabeth's reign, and to conclude with the great Rebellion in forty-two. It is true, there was a very ill taste, both of style and wit, which prevailed under king James I.; but that seems to have been corrected in the first years of his successor, who, among many other qualifications of an excellent prince, was a great patron of learning. From the civil war to this present time, I am apt to doubt whether the corruptions in our language have not at least equalled the refinements of it; and these corruptions very few of the best authors in our age have wholly escaped. During the usurpation, such an infusion of enthusiastic jargon prevailed in every writing, as was not shaken off in many years after. To this succeeded that licentiousness which entered with the Restoration, and, from infecting our religion and morals, fell to corrupt our language; which last was not likely to be much improved by those who at that time made up the court of king Charles II.; either such who had followed him in his banishment, or who had been altogether conversant in the dialect of those fanatic times; or
young men who had been educated in the same country so that the court, which used to be the standard of propriety and correctness of speech, was then, and I think has ever since continued, the worst school in England for that accomplishment; and so will remain till better care be taken in the education of our young nobility, that they may set out into the world with some foundation of literature, in order to qualify them for patterns of politeness. The consequence of this defect upon our language may appear from the plays and other compositions written for entertainment within fifty years past, filled with a succession of affected phrases and new conceited words, either borrowed from the current style of the court, or from those who, under the character of men of wit and pleasure, pretended to give the law. Many of these refinements have already been long antiquated, and are now hardly intelligible; which is no wonder, when they were the product only of ignorance and caprice.
I have never known this great town without one or more dunces of figure, who had credit enough to give rise to some new word, and propagate it in most conversations, though it had neither humour nor significancy. If it struck the present taste, it was soon transferred into the plays and current scribbles of the week, and became an addition to our language; while the men of wit and learning, instead of early obviating such corruptions, were too often seduced to imitate and comply with them.
There is another set of men who have contributed very much to the spoiling of the English tongue; I mean the poets from the time of the Restoration.
These gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our language was already overstocked with monosyllables, yet, to save time and pains, introduced that barbarous custom of abbreviating words to fit them to the measure of their verses; and this they have frequently done so very injudiciously as to form such harsh unharmonious sounds that none but a northern ear could endure. They have joined the most obdurate consonants with one intervening vowel, only to shorten a syllable; and their taste in time became so depraved, that what was at first a poetical license not to be justified, they made their choice, alleging that the words pronounced at length sounded faint and languid. This was a pretence to take up the same custom in prose; so that most of the books we see now-a-days are full of those manglings and abbreviations. Instances of this abuse are innumerable: what does your lordship think of the words drudg'd, disturb'd, rebuk'd, fledg'd, and a thousand others everywhere to be met with in prose as well as verse? where, by leaving out a vowel to save a syllable, we form so jarring a sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondered how it could ever obtain.
Another cause (and perhaps borrowed from the former) which has contributed not a little to the maiming of our language, is a foolish opinion, advanced of late years, that we ought to spell exactly as we speak; which, besides the obvious inconvenience of utterly destroying our etymology, would be a thing we should never see an end of. Not only the several towns and counties of England have a different way of pronouncing, but even here in London they clip their words after one manner about the court, another in