Alice Pugh. The Emergence of Prescriptive Attitudes


 The Factor of Competition


Cardinal Richelieu was responsible for the establishment of the Académie Française


In 1582 the Accademia della Crusca in Italy was created and in 1635 the L’Académie Française had been founded. In 1664 in England, John Dryden and other members made up the Royal Society’s ‘committee for improving the English Language’. Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and others felt that the English language was failing and should be corrected. They believed that an academy for the English language similar to those in France and Italy would keep the language pure and rescue it from degeneration. This society was one of many steps towards an English language institution.  These men were well educated within language and from the upper classes, they believed that the lower classes with their regional dialects were ruining and corrupting the language.  They also believed that the upper classes too were letting standards slip due to the flare and freedom of literature. ‘Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration.’ (Johnson 1755 cited in Graddol, Leith, Swan 1996:370).

There are many reasons for the emergence of prescriptive attitudes at this time.  Simple reasoning would be competition, those in the committee might have felt that the language could be given more status and should be just as adequate as the French, Italian and Latin Languages.  This inadequacy would have been felt for a long time, with the romance word stock having a constant presence in the English language and connections with high society.  With Latin being used within Law, the Church, Medicine, Science and many other domains people would have questioned why English was not used?  Having said this many of the men within the committee would have been writers who took advantage of these not so foreign languages; John Dryden for example wrote ‘AnnusMirabilis’ meaning ‘the year of wonders’ in Latin.  This shows that the prescriptive tendencies came not only from the quest for the lingua franca, but from wanting to shape up the language for those who spoke English as their mother tongue.  The aim it seemed was to have a language that could be spoken and written correctly, without ambiguity. 

In David Crystal's, The Stories of English, he outlines the four main mindsets of the language professionals; one being that polite people left alone do not speak or write properly, therefore the second mindset was that grammars, dictionaries and other manuals were needed to direct them, the third was that no one was exempt, even Shakespeare and the final mindset was that if Shakespeare makes mistake then lesser mortals are more than likely to fall into the same trap. (Crystal 2005:374) There are many reasons and theories behind this attitude and the rise in prescriptive attitudes. 

Throughout history it could be said that social constraints and what is seen to be ‘socially acceptable’ has become less restrained and our lives are given much more freedom.  The language has changed in this way also, progressively over time.  Old English had many influences due to settlers’ from across Europe.  The mixture of Celtic, Latin, Old Latin, French, French Norse, Old Norse, Friesen and other Scandinavian influences has created an eclectic language from the start.  It was popular influential writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer who changed language.  Shakespeare freely used the English language and used varying endings of words, for example he used ‘goes’ and ‘goeth’ (Bryson 1990:54). They openly created new words and used old and new forms of  words. 

After the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the increase in literacy, the creation of the Internet and mass media the language is freer than ever.  This constant change in the English language has meant there have always been prescriptive attitudes.  The uncertainty of what English words to use has come from its history and the vast amount of vocabulary. 


Copyrighted material




  The Factor of Competition

  Yearning for Linguistic Guidance

  Looking for the Model

  Fighting a Loosing Battle?

  References and Bibliography


  The Language of the Internet

  English Reasserts Its Status




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