Eighteenth-century "Proper" and "Correct" English:

William Perry's Descriptions of "True Pronunciation".



Massimo Sturiale

University of Catania


That there is a difficulty in fixing a standard for pronunciation, is evident from what follows. The literati, who make etymology the invariable rule of pronunciation, often pronounce words in such a manner, as to bring upon themselves the charge of affectation and pedantry; and though custom, in a great measure, is the rule of present practice, we should by no means follow the daily alterations introduced by caprice: In particular cases, however, it is necessary they should mutually give way to each other.


Mere men of the world, notwithstanding all their politeness, often retain so much of their provincial dialect, or commit such gross errours in speaking and writing, as to exclude them from the honour of being the standard of accurate pronunciation. Those who unite these two characters, and with correctness and precision of true learning combine the ease and elegance of genteel life, may justly be styled the only true standard for propriety of speech.

(William Perry, 1793: ii)



The aim of my paper is to trace a description of spoken English standardisation in the eighteenth century. William Perry's Dictionary proposed norms and rules for a "correct" pronunciation of standard English, being perfectly in line with the language guardians of the time who, as Blake (1996: 237) put it, were busy to fashion "what was right and set the standard", supporting the "polite language" ideology (see Watts 2002, see also MacMahon 1998).

One of the most famous lexicographers of his time, with his dictionary Perry gave an outstanding contribution to the prescription of spoken Standard English and to "the eighteenth century preference for a linguistic usage which was at once fixed and immutable" (Jones 1995: 1) and at same time, as Watts puts it (2002: 158, see also Watts 1999), setting the tone "for social climbers wishing to acquire those attributes of polite society that were enshrined within forms of language". In fact, Perry's intentions to fix a standard based on the concept of 'politeness' are first revealed in the dedicatory letter addressed to Lord Robert Manners when he states that:


The following dictionary intended to fix a standard for the pronunciation of the English Language, conformable to the present practice of polite speakers in the city of London


and later in the Preface:


It is from the practice of men of letters, eminent orators, and polite speakers in the Metropoli, that I have deduced the criterion  of the following work, on the merit of which the learned part of mankind are capable of determining for themselves (1793: iii).


To conclude, although Perry shares a few characteristics with Sheridan and Buchanan, as he himself maintains in the Preface, he also reveals a certain dissatisfaction  with the way "the sounds of words are expressed" (1793: iii) by the other two eighteenth-century scholars. Therefore, my paper will examine the "more rational method" (Ibid.) proposed in his attempt to better represent the sounds of the English language.






Primary Sources:


Perry, W., 17938, The Royal Standard English Dictionary, (1775), Edinburgh, Bell&Bradfute.


Secondary Sources:


Blake, N. F., 1996, A History of the English Language, London, Macmillan;


Dobson, E. J., 1957, English Pronunciation 1500-1700, 2 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press;


Fennell B. A., 2001, A History of English. A Sociolinguistic Approach, Oxford, Blackwell;


Finegan, E., 1998, "English Grammar and Usage" in S. Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. IV 1776-1997, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 536-588;


Fitzmaurice, S., 2000, "The Spectator, The Politics of Social Networks, and Language Standardisation in Eighteenth Century England", in L. Wright (ed.), The Development of Standard English 1300-1800, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 195-218;


Görlach, M., 1999, "Regional and Social Variation" in R. Lass (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language: 1476-1776, Volume III, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 459-538;


Jones, C., 1989, A History of English Phonology, London and New York, Longman;


Jones, C., 1995, "Sources for Scots Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century", Paradigm, 17, Sept. 1-19, URL http://w4.ed.uiuc.edu/faculty/westbury/Paradigm/jones.html [30 August 2002];


MacMahon, 1998, M. K. C., "Phonology" in S. Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. IV 1776-1997, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 373-535;


Millar, S., 2002, "Eloquence and Elegance. Ideals of Communicative in Spoken English" in R. Watts and P. Trudgill (eds.), Alternative Histories of English, London and New York, Routledge, pp. 155-172;


Milroy, J. and L. Milroy, 19912, Authority in Language. Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation, London and New York, Routledge;


Strang, B. M. H. 1970, A History of English, London, Methuen;


Watts, R. J., 1999, "The Social Construction of Standard English: Grammar Writers as a 'Discourse Community' in T. Bex and R. J. Watts (eds.), Standard English: The Widening Debate, London and New York, Routledge, pp. 40-68;


Watts, R., 2002, "From Polite Language to Educated Language" in R. Watts and P. Trudgill (eds.), Alternative Histories of English, London and New York, Routledge, pp. 155-172.