Regulating Early Modern English:

Pronunciation dictionaries


Sources (“ “ and page numbers not supplied)


Beal, Joan C. “Defining the standard of pronunciation: pronouncing dictionaries and the rise of RP.” Chapter 7

of English in modern times 1700-1945. London: Arnold, 2004.

[Beal, Joan C.  “John Walker: prescriptivist or linguistic innovator? Insights into late modern English. Ed.

Marina Dossena & Charles Jones. Bern &c: Peter Lang, 2003.]

Mugglestone, Lynda. ‘Talking proper’: the rise of accent as social symbol. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.


Concept of “standard” easier for anxious individuals to apply to their written language

§       writing can be corrected or revised before it’s made public and judged!


Concept of “standard pronunciation” evolved later than (e.g.) spelling or grammar


Certainly it was felt that some speech was better than others

§       C16th-17th: speech of London and universities

o      sometimes vs. generally “vulgar” or “barbarous”

§       era concerned more with the status of English as a language

§       late C17th-C18th: more emphasis on London’s “best speakers” (whoever they were)

o      Sheridan 1761: “people of education at the court”

o      others: “men of letters of the metropolis”, “elegance and taste of London”, &c.

§       era concerned with status of individual speakers and with “codification” and “rules”

·       grammar on Thursday!

But it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that it seemed possible to describe or “fix” pronunciation

§       Johnson (1755): “sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride”


Key ‘fixers’ date from the late 1750s onwards included

§       Irish actor Thomas Sheridan: gave lectures in late 1750s, 60s; published a dictionary later

§       actor John Walker 1791

§       Newcastle activist Thomas Spence 1775

o      to what extent is codification done from the ‘margins’?


And to what extent do these codifers respond to/incite social anxiety about pronunciation?

§       special prefaces for Irish/Scots, Cockney (“provincial”, “vulgar”) as well as for the Foreign

§       Sheridan (Irish) lectured in Scotland – but also in Oxford

o      TS really skilled at promotion: newspaper ads

§       Walker gave public lectures in Oxford and was asked by heads of houses to give special tutorials at their college

o      (despite the status of ‘Oxford’, remember that education was a leveller: Johnson’s father was a provincial bookseller and SJ couldn’t afford to continue at Oxford)


In the 18th, a prestigious accent became a marketable commodity

§       science, industrialization

o      ever-rising middle classes

§       politics, 1707 union of Scotland and England

o      ever-southward stream of Scots

§       improved transportation

o      more people mixing, aware of differences


Period when words accent and class were both shifting in meaning

§       accent ‘stress on a syllable’ -> ‘pronunciation’

§       class ‘any sort of grouping’ -> ‘social place’ (but different from rank, not necessarily determined by birth)         

o      LM links with Raymond Williams: “relevant semantic shifts in this context ‘belong essentially to the period between 1770 and 1840, which is also the period of the Industrial Revolution, and its decisive reorganization of society”


Required ability to describe sounds

§       Sheridan 1761: “If a method of acquiring a just pronunciation by books, as well as conversation, were established, its acquisition would not be circumscribed within such narrow bounds, but would be open to all British subjects, wherever born.”

o      codifiers often from the margins for the margins

o      importance of word British

§       Sheridan: pronunciation can now be reduced “to a certainty by fixed and visible marks; the only way in which uniformity of sound could be propagated to any distance”


Developments in transcription

o      formerly just stress: Bailey, Johnson

o      1757, James Buchanan (Scottish) marked long and short vowels with macrons

o      1773: Kenrick (another Scot) put numerals over letters

o      but he’d got these from Sheridan’s lectures

o      1780: Sheridan combined these with a systematic respelling of the entry word

o      other features

o      pointy finger for contentious words (e.g. “schedule” in Walker)

o      section numbers for general trends




Despite his prescriptive agenda, Walker useful evidence for ongoing sound changes

o      loss of [r], [l]

o      lengthening of a in words like BATH

o      replacement of [h_] as a result of spelling pronunciation/social anxiety

o      words like humour and humble without [h]

o      words like singing, ringing had [_n]: retained on grounds of euphony


Certainly useful evidence for prescriptive attitudes

o      tend to reduce issues to binaries: h-dropping, g-dropping

o      big source of anxiety: not consistent!

§       i.e. herb and humour [h_]-less

o      and to attach non-linguistic judgements to them

o      social

§       g-dropping “a source of embarrassment to speakers who desire to pronounce correctly”

o      aesthetic

§       “a coarseness and vulgarity of tone”

o      moral

§       Walker: h-dropping a “vice” of the Cockneys


Sheridan the first to describe h-dropping in terms which reveal negative attitudes

o      “There is one defect which more generally prevails in the counties than any other, and indeed is gaining ground among the politer part of the world: I mean the omission of the aspirate in many words by some, and in most by others”

o      implies h-dropping is polite, but wrong

o      “The best method of curing this will be to read over frequently all the words beginning with the letter H and those beginning with WH in the dictionary, and push them out with the full force of the breath, till an habit is obtained of aspirating strongly”


How practical?

o      large! more for reference than for carrying around

o      Walker cost over a pound (when the average salary of a school usher was 4-8 shillings a week)

o      in 1852, Walker 4s 6d


C19th: cheap little handbooks with titles like

o      Harry Hawkins’ H Book

o      Poor Letter H: its use and abuse


How popular?

o      very: Walker reprinted over 100 times up to 1904

o      and the basis of many C19th dictionaries


C19th: standard accent less “London” than “educated”, one that doesn’t reveal a speaker’s regional origins

o      associated with public schools: put a lot of boys together at a young age and

o      peer pressure

o      dialect mixing principles

§       will level the accent!