------------------------------------------------- 18th Century English Grammarians on Language

18th Century on Language and Grammar

James Shirley (d. 1666) as edited by Jenkin Thomas Philipps, tutor to the children of King George II, in a volume designed as a textbook for Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumber land, and dedicated to George, then Prince of Wales--An Essay towards an Universal and Rational Grammar... (London 1726):

History, Poetry, and Rhetorick, are much more ancient with most Nations, than Grammar, (consider'd as an Art) which is the true Reason of so many Irregularities in all Grammars, and Exceptions from general Rules, because that Art was suited to Language, and not Language form'd according to Art by Philosophers and wise Men, but all Tongues had their Birth among the ignorant People, and Use gave the Stamp of Authority to the most irregular Expressions, and therefore 'twas not in the Power of any Mortal, however learn'd, to reduce them to any Rules without innumerable Exceptions; whereas, if a Language was made by learned Men, according to Bishop Wilkins's Directions in his Treatise of an universal Character, the Rules of Grammar would be as little liable to Exceptions, as those of Arithmetick.

There are many Languages not reduced to any Rules of Grammar to this Day, and before Mr. Alexander Gill, Ben. Johnson, and Doct. Wallis, few undertook any Thing of this Nature for the English Tongue; and one may almost date to affirm the same of the German and other Languages of Europe; and indeed it is a difficult Task to confine a living Language to Fetters and Chains, which will assert its Liberty in Spight of Criticks and Grammarians.

The Romans knew nothing of its Critical Niceties, till Crates Malotes Ambassador from Attalus King of Pergamus, 583 Years after the Foundation of Rome, taught it in Rome, as Suetonius informs us in his Book of the Life of famous Grammarians: Ever since that Time the Latin Tongue has been disfigur'd by Thousands of ignorant Grammarians, copying one another's Blunders, which lead the Learners into inevitable Mistakes, by having more Regard to the obscure Rules of Pedagogues, than to the diligent Reading and Imitation of Latin Authors, who wrote before the Tyranny of Grammar came to be so much in Vogue: And I am inclin'd to believe that those dull Grammarians contributed as much, if not more, to the Monkish Stile of subsequent Times, than the barbarous Nations of the Goths and Vandals; for, to write Latin by uncertain, and often false, Rules, and Words pick'd out of Dictionaries, is to build by a false Square, which cannot but make a very irregular Structure; so that we had no judicious System of Rules for Learning Latin, till Sanctius a Spaniard printed his Commentary on the Latin Tongue, at Madrid 1560, who discover'd the many Mistakes of the ancient Grammarians: Then followed Gaspar Scioppius, and others, very excellent in their Kind, but of no use to Children and Beginners, because written in Latin; for to teach Latin by Latin Rules is to explain one Obscurity by another, and therefore very ridiculous in it self, and not to be suffer'd by any people, but among those who would have us submit not only to a National Grammar, but likewise to National Prayers, in an unknown Tongue. (i-iii)

Robert Lowth A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762):

Does it mean, that the English Language as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of our most approved authors, oftentimes offends against every part of Grammar? Thus far, I am afraid, the charge is true. Or does it further imply, that our Language is in its nature irregular and capricious; not subject, or not easily reduceable, to a System of rules? In this respect, I am persuaded, the charge is wholly without foundation. (ii-iii)

The principal design of a Grammar of any Language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that Language, and to be able to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not. The plain way of doing this, is to lay down rules, and to illustrate them by examples. But besides shewing what is right, the matter may be further explained by pointing out what is wrong. I will not take upon me to say, whether we have any Grammar that sufficiently performs the first part: but the latter method here called in, as subservient to the former, may perhaps be found in this case to be of the two the more useful and effectual manner of instruction. (x-xi)

In later editions he objects strongly to double negatives since, as we learn in mathematics, twice times a negative creates a positive: "Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative: as, 'Nor did they not perceive the evil plight / In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel'" (Milton, PL 1: 335), showing bad examples in Chaucer and Shakespeare. He also strongly disapproves of putting a relative pronoun in front of a preposition governing it and failing to use the objective form, quoting Shakespeare as erring in "Who servest thou under?" (Hen V) & "Who do you speak to?" (As You Like It). As for double negatives, they were simply more emphatic for most use, not mathematical; the order and case of relative pronouns is still argued, but usage evidently says the "who" is perceived as being the "real subject" of the sentence and subjects ought to be put up front and in subjective form.

Even so, his concept of grammar may be curious at times:

The Conjunction connects or joins together Sentences; so as out of two to make one Sentence.

Thus, "You, and I, and Peter, rode to London," is one Sentence made up of these three by the Conjunction and twice employed; "You rode to London; I rode to London; Peter rode to London." (92-93)

Though many of his requirements both then and now are standard usage, time has altered some. Among irregular verbs, he includes these as irregular only in the past participle: bake/baken, load/loaden, and mow/mown (77). For us, baked and loaded have become the past participles, and usage is split over mown/mowed. To him, crope, hove, and shore are the correct past tenses of creep, heave, and shear (73).

James Elphinston Inglish Orthoggraphy Epittomized (1790):

Orthoggraphy must employ symbols (or letters) nedher too manny, too few, nor inadde quate (or misrepprezenting); and must, by dhis rule, first adjust dhe consonants; on hwich in evvery language, espescially in ours, dhe vocal sounds often entirely depend. (5)

What are consonants?

Not onely ar dhe consonants divizzibel into' licquids, or mutually meltabels; l, r, n, m; and mutes, dhe rest, az havving les expression: but into' direct and depressive, according to' dhe emission ov dhe breth.

Thomas Gunter Browne Hermes Unmasked (1795): the application of pure thought to language, with little scientific research in support of specious etymology; e.g., "there is in reality but one sort of word, and that there is no distinction originally between the noun and the verb" (3).

He uses the example of a baby learning to talk; the mother teaches it nouns, pointing to herself and saying "mama," to the fire and saying "fire," to his brother and saying "Tom," and to the bed and saying "bed." If the child looks over one day and sees its brother lying in the bed, which has caught on fire, it will shout out "Tom! Fire! Bed!" and the mother will understand perfectly, for a "verb, then, is no more than the name of a thing; that is, a noun, used metaphorically" (28-32).

I imagine that there was originally only one part of speech, or one sort of word; and this is particularly plain in our mother tongue, where almost every word, truly English, is both noun and verb, viz. A head; they head. --An eye; they eye. --A nose; they nose.... Now it is no objection to say, that the pronoun they was not so early in use; for you have only to substitute Tom, Jack, or any other names of persons, and things, for which the pronoun they is supposed to be used.

But he does not lack in imagination:

The Greeks were famous for compound words.--Thus, such a word as bull-thigh-fat, which was originally conceived as three substantives, might, in the course of time, very well have been founded as one word. The three substantives, or this one word, might have been used as one adjective, and it might have excited sensations equivalent to the sensations we call pious, or religious; because, forsooth, the fat thigh of a bull was the most delicious eating for the priests, and therefore ordered by them to be sacrificed to the gods--of course the man who gave a great deal of fat-bull-thigh, would be honoured with the word religious.

Thus, we see how the adjective religious, pious, venerable, and such like, may have been invented in some countries; and thus we see, why it is best to teach all false religions and political matters, if possible, in foreign words; for it is plain, that if men in some countries had known the gross and sensible origin of many religious and political words, they would not have had such great dread of them. (44-45)


Joseph Priestly's Rudiments of English Grammar (1761?):

the general prevailing custom, where ever it happen to be, can be the only standard for the time it prevails.

George Campbell Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776):

Good usage is national and reputable and present.

National meant that it was "not regional," reputable meant "not recognized as poor," and present meant "not out of date." However, where Campbell promptly forgot what he wrote there, Priestly did not.

Sir William Jones (1746-94), his presidential address at the 3rd anniversary of the Asiatic Society (1786):

It is much to be lamented that neither the Greeks, who attended ALEXANDER into India, nor those who were long connected with it under the Bactrian Princes, have left us any means of knowing with accuracy, what vernacular languages they found on their arrival in this Empire....

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia. (Asiatic Researches 1 [1799]: 421-23)