Metropolitan languages in colonial grammars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Richard Steadman-Jones, University of Sheffield


It is well known that in the eighteenth century theories of general grammar provided the technical infrastructure for a range of prescriptivist texts. The “universal” categories identified within general grammar formed the basis for the criticism of particular languages at the levels of both structure and usage and, if a language did not instantiate one of the categories effectively it might be deemed structurally flawed or at least in need of a reform of usage. Although the prescriptivist writers of the eighteenth century expressed anxiety that general grammar would find the English language wanting in this respect, they could at least console themselves with the fact that it was not as “deficient” as the languages of the colonies. This is a point well made by Janet Sorensen (2000, 11) when she asserts that the assumptions of general grammar are “particularly troubling when we remind ourselves that for the philosophical grammarians, Western European languages, primarily Latin, provided the basic grid […] into which were plugged “colonial” languages such as Gaelic, and rarely vice versa”. But, although Sorensen is right that the dominant pattern was for “colonial” languages to be analysed in terms of Western European ones, it is a regular trope of colonial grammatical writing to reverse the direction of the comparison and meditate upon what the “colonial” language can teach the reader about the languages of metropolitan Europe. In this paper I shall look at a number of examples of reversals of this kind and consider their meaning in relation to the cultural politics of the period. In particular I shall show how, for at least one writer, this practice provides a means of accumulating symbolic capital despite speaking fro ma marginal position within British society.




Sorensen, Janet. 2000. The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing.

Cambridge: Cambridge UP.