Thomas Spence’s Grand Repository of the English Language (1775)

Joan C. Beal


Studies of grammar and usage in the Later Modern English Period have tended to take their cue from S. A. Leonard’s seminal work The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage 1700-1800 (1929). Whilst acknowledging that there were exceptions (notably Priestley), Leonard emphasised the authoritarian and normative nature of 18th-century grammars. He also suggested that, although a few grammarians (Farro, Ash and Buchanan) advertised their works as suitable for tradespeople, ‘the majority of writers seem to have felt that they were writing for the edification and use of gentlemen, to warn them against inadvertent contamination with the language of the vulgar’ (1929: 169). In Leonard’s view, the majority of 18th-century grammars were written by and for gentlemen, to help them avoid what Bailey termed ‘the depraved language of the common people’. (1722: 41, quoted in Leonard 1929: 170).


One 18th-century writer who clearly bucks this trend is Thomas Spence. Born into a poor artisan family on the quayside in Newcastle upon Tyne, Spence was to become one of the most radical writers and thinkers in late 18th –century / early 19th –century Britain. His lifelong devotion to propagating his plan for the reform of society was to earn him expulsion from the Newcastle Philosophical Society, two spells in jail, and eventually led to a law being passed after his death forbidding his followers from meeting in his name. Yet Spence’s other ‘plan’, for the reform of English spelling, was equally important in his eyes. Spence’s Grand Repository of the English Language (1775) was written, not for gentlemen, but for ‘the laborious part of the people’, in order to make reading, and therefore enlightenment, accessible to them.


In all other respects, though, the Grand Repository, with its introductory grammar and its phonetic spellings intended to present ‘the most proper and agreeable pronunciation’, looks very much like other normative texts of the late 18th century. In this paper, I aim to explore, if not resolve the contradictions involved in the production of a normative text by so radical a thinker as Spence.