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FOR CORRECTING, IMPROVING, AND
A LETTER TO THE MOST HONOURABLE ROBERT EARL OF OXFORD AND MORTIMER, LORD HIGH TREASURER OF GREAT BRITAIN.
FIRST PRINTED IN MAY 1712.
This Proposal was cavalierly censured by an anonymous writer, supposed to be Mr. Oldmixon, in "Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to the Earl of Oxford, about the English Tongue, 1712." It produced also "The British Academy; being a newcreated Society for the Advancement of Wit and Learning; with some few Observations on it, 1712," 8vo.; which, amidst some playful attacks on Dr. Swift, contains the following account of the members of the famous society to which the Journal to Stella so frequently alludes. It is translated from an article of London news, in the Amsterdam Gazette of May 20. "There has been lately formed here a Society to reward and encourage merit, with respect to the Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is to be composed of 21 members, of which number there are already 19 chosen; the dukes of Beaufort and Ormond; the earls of Arran and Orrery; the lords Duplin, son-in-law of the lord treasurer; Harley, son of the said treasurer; Lansdown, secretary at war; Masham and Bathurst; Sir William. Wyndham; Mr. St. John, secretary of state; Harcourt, son of the lord keeper; and Raymond, solicitor general; the colonels Hill and Disney; Swift, Doctor in Divinity; Prior; Arbuthnot, the queen's physician; and Freind, physician to the duke of Ormond. These gentlemen, who have deferred naming the other two members till such time as they think fit, do now assemble every Thursday; and have already given rewards to some authors, whose works have been approved of, and have recommended others to the ministers of state, that they may have some establishment."
"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 is now 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 politicks, 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 me, how my 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.
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 bẹ of greater use toward 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 t. I was glad to find
* This sentence is uncouth, and ungrammatical, and may easily be amended thus- And they think it very possible to compass the work,' &c. S.
"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.
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 topick, 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
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, toward 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 * remaining
*"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 publick had any regard to it, to make the English tongue immutable; unless hereafter some foreign nation shall invade and over-run us.” BENTLEY.