A radical awareness of language’s mutability

I recently read Henry Hitchings’s Defining the world: The extraordinary story of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, and I recommend it heartily to those of you who enjoy its principal fields of interest: words, history, literature, biography, and lexicography.

As well as recreating the history of Johnson’s Dictionary, which was first published in 1755, Hitchings’s book serves as a frank and affectionate portrait of Samuel Johnson himself, and as a vivid profile of 18th-century England. It’s an elegant and enthralling account that includes a keen analysis of Johnson’s linguistic attitudes and shows how these developed over the course of creating his mighty work.

Before beginning the Dictionary in earnest, Johnson wrote a lengthy Plan of an English Dictionary, in which he presented his ambitions for the book and his suitability for the task. It was addressed to the Earl of Chesterfield in order to win his patronage. Chesterfield, we read, was “obsessed with propriety of usage . . . and with embalming or even bettering the language”. Johnson said the dictionary’s chief intent would be “to preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”.

The order of these aspirations is no accident. Johnson’s characterisation of English as “licentious” and “inconstant” has what Hitchings refers to as “a distinctly moral cast”. But although the emphasis on stability was “consistent with [Johnson's] own political instincts”, Hitchings suggests that it was probably exaggerated for Chesterfield’s sake: years later the Dictionary’s preface would contain a sober and eloquent acknowledgement of the irresistibility of linguistic change.

From Defining the world:

Linguistic conservatives like Chesterfield were afraid that unchecked changes in general usage would cause the English of the eighteenth century to become as bewildering to its inheritors as the language of Chaucer was to them. They were correct, of course, in seeing that their language was in flux. Then and now, the engines of this change include international commerce and travel, which involve contact with other languages; shifts in political doctrine or consensus; translations, which frequently preserve the idiom of their originals; fashion (in Johnson’s age, the nascent cult of sensibility), whose adherents require a special figurative language to articulate their refined and rarefied perspectives; and advertising, which uses foreign terms to connote mystique. These transfusions are what keep a language alive, but this is a modern view. Chesterfield could not begin to see that change was a force for the good. With time, Johnson’s conservatism — the desire to ‘fix’ the language — gave way to a radical awareness of language’s mutability. But from the outset the impulse to standardize and straighten English out was in competition with the belief that one should chronicle what’s there, and not just what one would like to see.

250 years later, Johnson’s Dictionary remains “not merely readable, but vital”, Hitchings writes, its every page brimming with philological lore and choice quotation. It is not just a landmark in lexicography but a great work of literature, described by Robert Burchfield as “the only dictionary compiled by a writer of the first rank”.*

The sixth edition of the Dictionary (1785) is available in multiple formats from the Internet Archive: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

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* My Tumblr blog has a short passage by Burchfield on semantic drift.

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2 Responses to A radical awareness of language’s mutability

  1. stuartnz says:

    It’s funny that the very first thing I thought of when I read the paragraph on his Plan was that it sounded very much like a pitch, telling the prospective client what he wanted to hear. It also fits very nicely with the image of Johnson in my favourite episode of Blackadder, Ink and Incapability I wonder if his journey from (for brevity’s sake) prescriptivist to descriptivist is one that most true lovers of the language take, along the lines of Shaw’s comment about being a socialist

  2. Stan says:

    Stuart: Apparently the historian Thomas Birch found the Plan‘s style “too flatulent”, though he considered it “an ingenious performance”. Hitchings says that it “certainly is rhetorical, but plenty remains once its windy courtesies are subtracted”. Since reading the book, I’ve been meaning to rewatch that episode of Blackadder, but I will probably want to watch the entire series then! I think a journey from prescriptivist to descriptivist is probably far more common than the reverse; it’s a fair, if crude, description of my own path.

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