A Projected English Academy


Daniel Defoe, Of Academies (1697)

The peculiar Study of the Academy of Paris, has been to Refine and Correct their own Language; which they have done to that happy degree, that we see it now spoken in all the Courts of Christendom, as the Language allow’d to be most universal. 

Daniel Defoe (1660?—1731)

I had the Honour once to be a Member of a small Society, who seem’d to offer at this Noble Design in England. But the Greatness of the Work, and the Modesty of the Gentlemen concern’d, prevail’d with them to desist an Enterprize which appear’d too great for Private Hands to undertake. We want indeed a Richlieu to commence such a Work: . . . The English Tongue is a Subject not at all less worthy the Labour of such a Society than the French, and capable of a much greater Perfection. The Learned among the French will own, That the Comprehensiveness of Expression is a Glory in which the English Tongue not only Equals but Excels its Neighbours.

[Defoe proposes] That a Society be erected by the King himself, if his Majesty thought fit, and composed of none but Persons of the first Figure in Learning; and ‘twere to be wish’d our Gentry were so much Lovers of Learning, that Birth might always be join’d with Capacity.

The Work of this Society shou’d be to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc’d; and all those Innovations in Speech, if I may call them such, which some Dogmatic Writers have the Confidence to foster upon their Native Language, as if their Authority were sufficient to make their own Fancy legitimate.

By such a Society I dare say the true Glory of our English Stile wou’d appear; and among all the Learned Part of the World, be esteem’d, as it really is, the Noblest and most Comprehensive of all the Vulgar Languages in the World.

Into this Society should be admitted none but Persons Eminent for Learning, and yet none, or but very few, whose Business or Trade was Learning: For I may be allow’d, I suppose, to say, We have seen many great Scholars, meer Learned Men, and Graduates in the last Degree of Study, whose English has been far from Polite, full of Stiffness and Affectation, hard Words, and long unusual Coupling of Syllables and Sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the Ear, and shock the Reader both in Expression and Understanding.

In short, There should be room in this Society for neither Clergyman, Physician, or Lawyer. Not that I wou’d put an Affront upon the Learning of any of those Honourable Employments, much less upon their Persons: But if I do think that their several Professions do naturally and severally prescribe Habits of Speech to them peculiar to their Practice, and prejudicial to the Study I speak of, I believe I do them no wrong. Nor do I deny but there may be, and now are among some of all those Professions, Men of Stile and Language, great Masters of English, whom few men will undertake to Correct ...

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