Cookie Consent

Monday, February 11, 2013

Corruption of Our English Tongue, From the Tatler

       "The following letter has laid before me many great and manifest evils in the world of letters which I had overlooked;  but they open to me a very busy scene, and it will require no small care and application to amend errors which are become so universal.  The affectation of politeness is exposed in this epistle with a great deal of wit and discernment;  so that whatever discourses I may fall into hereafter upon the subjects the writer treats of, I shall at present lay the matter before the world, without the least alteration from the words of my correspondent.

To Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire.  Sir,
       There are some abuses among us of great consequence, the reformation of which is properly your province;  though, as far as I have been conversant in your papers, you have not yet considered them.  These are, the deplorable ignorance that for some years hath reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.  I say nothing here of those who handle particular sciences, divinity, law, politics, and the belles lettres;  together with those by whom books are not translated, but, as the common expressions are 'done out of' French, Latin, or other language, and 'made English.'  I cannot but observe to you, that until of late years a Grub Street book was always bound in sheepskin, with suitable print and paper, the price never above a shilling, and taken off wholly by common tradesmen or country pedlars;  but now they appear in all sizes and shapes, and in all places.  They are handed about from lapfuls in every coffee-house to persons of quality;  are shown in Westminster Hall and the Court of Requests.  You may see them gilt, and in royal paper of five or six hundred pages, and rated accordingly.  I would engage to furnish you with a catalogue of English books published within the compass of seven years past, which at the first hand would cost you a hundred pounds, wherein you shall not be able to find ten lines together of common grammar or common sense.
       These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third;  I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the forgoing hundred.  And this is what I design chiefly to enlarge upon, leaving the former evils to your animadversion.
      But instead of giving you a list of the last refinements crept into our language, I here send you a copy of a letter I received, some time ago, from a most accomplished person in this way of writing;  upon which I shall make some remarks.  It is in these terms:
                        I cou'd n't get the things you sent for all about Town.-----I tho't to ha' come down myself, and then I'd h' brot' um;  but I ha'nt don't, and I believe I can't do't, that's Pozz------.  Tom begins to gi' mself airs, because he's going with the Plenipo's ------.  'Tis said the French King will bamboozl us agen, which causes many speculations.  The Jacks and others of that Kidney are very appish, and alert upon't, as you may see by their Phizz's------.  Will Hazzard has got the hipps, having lost to the Tune of five hundr'd pound, tho' he understands play very well, no Body better.  He has promis't me upon rep, to leave off play;  but you know 'tis a weakness he's too apt to give into, tho' he has as much wit as any man, no Body more.  He has lain incog ever since-----.  The mob's very quiet with us now------.  I believe you thot I banter'd you in my last, like a country put-----. I shan't leave town this month, etc.'

      This letter is in every point an admirable pattern of the present polite way of writing;  nor is it of less authority for being an epistle.  You may gather every flower in it, with a thousand more of equal sweetness, from the books, pamphlets, and single papers offered us every day in the coffee-houses.  And these are the beauties introduced to supply the want of wit, sense, humour, and learning, which formerly were looked upon as qualifications for a writer.  If a man of wit, who died forty years ago, were to rise from the grave on purpose, how would he be able to read this letter?  And after he had got through that difficulty, how would he be able to understand it?  The first thing that strikes your eye is the breaks at the end of almost every sentence;  of which I know not the use, only that it is a refinement, and very frequently practised.  Then you will observe the abbreviations and elisions, by which consonants of most obdurate sound are joined together, without one softening vowel to intervene;  and all this only to make one syllable of two, directly contrary to the example of the Greeks and Romans, altogether of the Gothic strain, and a natural tendency towards relapsing into barbarity, which delights in monosyllables, and uniting of mute consonants, as it is observable in all the northern languages.  And this is still more visible in the next refinement, which consists in pronouncing the first syllable in a word that has many, and dismissing the rest, such as 'phizz, hipps, mob, pozz, rep,' and many more, when we are already overloaded with monosyllables, which are the disgrace of our language.  Thus we cram one syllable, and cut off the rest, as the owl fatteneth her mice after she had bit off their legs to prevent them from running away;  and if ours be the same reason for maiming our words, it will certainly answer the end;  for I am sure no other nation will desire to borrow them.  Some words are hitherto but fairly split, and therefore only in their way to perfection, as Incog., and Plenipo.  But in a short time, it is to be hoped, they will be further docked to Inc. and Plen.  This reflection has made me of late years very impatient for a peace, which I believe would save the lives of many brave words, as well as men.  The war has introduced abundence of polysyllables, which will never be able to live many more campaigns, 'speculations, operations, preliminaries, ambassadors, palisadoes, communication, circumvallation, battallions,'  as numerous as they are, if they attack us too frequently in our coffee-houses, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear.
       The third refinement, observable in the letter I send you, consists in the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows, such as 'banter, bamboozle, country put, and kidney,' as it is there applied;  some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession of it.  I have done my utmost for some years past, to stop the progress of 'mob' and 'banter,' but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.
       In the last place, you are to take notice of certain choice phrases scattered through the letter, some of them tolerable enough, until they were worn to rags by servile imitators.  You might easily find them though they were not in a different print, and therefore I need not disturb them.
       These are the false refinements in our style which you ought to correct;  first, by argument and fair means, but if those fail, I think you are to make use of your authority as Censor, and by an annual Index Expurgatorius expunge all words and phrases that are offensive to good sense and condemn those barbarous mutilations of vowels and syllables.  In this last point the usual pretence is that they spell as they speak:  a noble standard for language!  to depend on the caprice of every coxcomb, who, because words are the clothing of our thoughts, cuts them out and shapes them as he pleases, and changes them oftener than his dress.  I believe all reasonable people would be content that such refiners were more sparing in their words and liberal in their syllables;  and upon this head I should be glad you would bestow some advice upon several young readers in our churches, who, coming up from the university full fraught with admiration of our town politeness, will needs correct the style of their prayer-books.  In reading the absolution, they are very careful to say 'Pardons and Absolves';  but in the prayer for the Royal Family, it must be endue'um, enrich'um, prosper'um, and bring'um.  Then in their sermons they use all the modern terms of art, 'sham, banter, mob, bubble, bully, cutting, shuffling, and palming;'  all which, and many more of the like stamp, as I have heard them often in the pulpit from such young sophisters, so have I read them in some of 'those sermons that have made most noise of late.'  The design, it seems, is to avoid the dreadful imputation of pedantry;  to show us that they know the town, understand men and manners, and have not been poring upon old unfashionable books in the university.
       I should be glad to see you the instrument of introducing into our style that simplicity which is the best and truest ornament of most things in life, which the politer ages always aimed at in their building and dress, simplex munditiis,as well as their productions of wit.  It is manifest that all new affected modes of speech, whether borrowed from the court, the town, or the theatre, are the first perishing parts in any language;  and, as I could prove by many hundred instances, have been so in ours.  The writings of Hooker, who was a country gentleman, and of Parsons the Jesuit, both in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, are in a style that, with very few allowances, would not offend any present reader, and are much more clear and intelligible than those of Sir Harry Wotton, Sir Robert Naunton, Osborn, Daniel the historian, and several others who writ later;  but being men of the court, and affecting the phrases then in fashion, they are often either not to be understood, or appear perfectly ridiculous.
       What remedies are to be applied to those evils I have not room to consider, having, I fear, already taken up most of your paper.  Besides, I think it is our office only to represent abuses, and yours to redress them.  I am with great respect, Sir, Your, etc.



No comments: