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FOR CORRECTING, IMPROVING, AND ASCERTAINING,
A LETTER TO THE MOST HONOURABLE ROBERT, EARL OF OX
FORD AND MORTIMER, LORD HIGH TREASURER OF GREAT
FIRST PRINTED IN MAY, 1712.
* This Essay, which led to no consequences, is the only trace of the literary labours of the celebrated Society of Brothers, so often mentioned in the Journal to Stella. Johnson, than whom none could judge more accurately of the value of the Proposal, has recorded his sentiments in the following words :-"Early in the next year he published a 'Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue,' in a letter to the Earl of Oxford ; written without much knowledge of the general nature of language, and without any accurate inquiry into the history of other tongues. The certainty and stability which, contrary to all experience, Swift thinks attainable, he proposes to secure by instituting an academy; the decrees of which every man would have been willing, and
would have been proud, to disobey, and which, being renewed by successive elections, would, in a short time, have differed from itself.”
Various answers were published upon the appearance of this Letter.
“I HAVE been six hours to-day morning writing nineteen pages of a letter to Lord-treasurer, about forming a society, or academy, to correct and fix the English language. It will not be above five or six more. I will send it him to-morrow; and will print it, if he desires me.”
Journal to Stella, Feb. 21, 1711-12. “ I finished the rest of my letter to Lord-treasurer to-day, and sent it to him.” Ibid. Feb. 22.
“ Lord-treasurer has lent the long letter I writ him to Prior; and I can't get Prior to return it. I want to have it printed; and to make up this academy for the improvement of our language.” Ibid. March 11.
My letter to the Lord-treasurer about the English tongue printing ; and I suffer my name to be put at the end of it, which I never did before in my life.” Ibid. May 10, 1712. “ Have you seen my
letter to the Lord-treasurer ? There are two answers come out to it already, though it is no politics, but a harmless proposal about the improvement of the English tongue. I believe, if I writ an essay upon a straw, some fool would answer it.” Ibid. May 31. “ You never told
letter to Lord-treasurer passes in Ireland." Ibid. July 1.
“ What care I, whether my letter to Lord-treasurer be commended there or not? Why does not somebody among you answer it, as three or four have done here?” Ibid. July 17.
London, Feb. 22, 1711-12. What I had the honour of mentioning to your lordship some time ago in conversation, was not a new thought, just then started by accident or occasion, but the result of long reflection ; and I have been confirmed in my sentiments, by the opinion of some very judicious persons, with whom I consulted. They all agreed, that nothing would be of greater use towards the improvement of knowledge and politeness, than some effectual method for correcting, enlarging, and ascertaining our language ; and they think it a work very possible to be compassed under the protection of a prince, the countenance and encouragement of a ministry, and the care of proper persons chosen for such an undertaking.* I was
*“ Dr Swift proposed a plan of this nature, (the forming a society to fix a standard to the English language,) to his friend, as he thought him, the Lord-Treasurer Oxford, but without success ; precision and perspicuity not being in general the favourite objects of ministers, and perhaps still less so of that minister than any other.” CHESTERFIELD.
glad to find your lordship’s answer in so different a style, from what has been commonly made use of on the like occasions, for some years past, That all such thoughts must be deferred to a time of peace : a topic which some have carried so far, that they would not have us by any means think of preserving our civil or religious constitution, because we are engaged in a war abroad. It will be among the distinguishing marks of your ministry, my lord, that you have a genius above all such regards, and that no reasonable proposal for the honour, the advantage, or the ornament of your country, however foreign to your more immediate office, was ever neglected by you. I confess the merit of this candour and condescension is very much lessened, because your lordship hardly leaves us room to offer our good wishes; removing all our difficulties, and supplying our wants, faster than the most visionary projector can adjust his schemes. And, therefore, my lord, the design of this paper is not so much to offer you ways and means, as to complain of a grievance, the redressing of which is to be your own work, as much as that of paying the nation's debts, or opening a trade into the South-Sea ; and though not of such immediate benefit as either of these, or any other of your glorious actions, yet perhaps, in future ages, not less to your honour.
My lord, I do here, in the name of all the learned and polite persons of the nation, complain to your lordship, as first minister, that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions ; that the pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities; and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar. But lest your lordship should think my censure too severe, I shall take leave to be more particular.
I believe your lordship will agree with me in the reason, why our language is less refined than those of Italy, Spain, or France. 'Tis plain, that the Latin tongue in its purity was never in this island, towards the conquest of which, few or no attempts were made till the time of Claudius ; neither was that language ever so vulgar in Britain, as it is known to have been in Gaul and Spain. Farther, we find that the Roman legions here were at length all recalled to help their country against the Goths, and other barbarous invaders. Meantime, the Britains, left to shift for themselves, and daily harassed by cruel inroads from the Picts, were forced to call in the Saxons for their defence; who, consequently, reduced the greatest part of the island to their own power, drove the Britains into the most remote and mountainous parts, and the rest of the country, in customs, religion, and language, became wholly Saxon. This I take to be the reason, why there are more Latin words* re
*“ As for our English tongue ; the great alterations it has undergone in the two last centuries are principally owing to that vast stock of Latin words which we have transplanted into our own soil ; which being now in a manner exhausted, one may easily presage that it will not have such changes in the two next centuries. Nay, it were no difficult contrivance, if the public had any regard to it, to make the English tongue immutable; unless hereafter some foreign nation shall invade and over-run us."-BENTLEY.
How very far Bentley was mistaken in his prophecy is evident, from the great number of words naturalized from the Latin during the last century, especially since the style of Johnson was adopted as a model. Many of the words quoted by Swift as the offspring of affectation and pedantry, are now in common and every-day use.