Fixing Language Forever:

Eighteenth Century Proposals for an English Academy

© Michael Raby 2008


For modern speakers of English, the phrase “language academy” is likely to conjure images of distinguished, old white men debating arcane points of syntax and decrying the latest foreign loanwords. The idea that an officially sanctioned body of experts could – and should – regulate language usage seems at once quaint, elitist, impractical and decidedly French. Indeed, when the topic of language academies arises, language commentators from the Anglo-American tradition, like Bill Bryson, often breathe a sigh of relief that English has managed to avoid “a stultifying authority” like the French Academy; rather, in Bryson’s eyes, “English is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to pressure of common usage rather than the dictates of committees” (qtd in Ager 48). Given the overwhelmingly descriptive bent of modern linguistics, Bryson’s comments are hardly surprising; yet they are worth unpacking, for they raise a number of interesting questions: do “the dictates of committees” really have the power to change popular language usage? More importantly, what does it mean to imply that English is a more “fluid” and “democratic” language than French? The belief that the English language is characterized by variability and variety has a lengthy precedent, but these qualities were not always a source of pride. In fact, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, numerous English authors expressed a desire to found a language academy based on the French model in order to “fix” the language by halting, or at least slowing, what they saw as rapid and destructive linguistic change. This article will explore the socio-historical and linguistic context surrounding these proposals – specifically, the proposals of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift – and will attempt to explain (or at least speculate) why English has never been governed by a language academy.[1] 

Language Planning, Academies and Linguistic Purism

The language academy is one of the key instruments in the field of language planning, which Laura Eastman defines broadly as “the decision-making that goes into determining what language use is appropriate in particular speech communities” (Eastman 1). Language planners proscribe, recommend, authorize in order to accomplish specific goals within a speech community, whether these goals are expressive, like improving communication, or political, like encouraging national unity. According to sociolinguist Moshe Nahir, the five objectives of language planning are:

  1. Language Purification – prescription of “correct” usage and the preservation of the language’s “purity”
  2. Language Revival – restoration of an old language to its previous status or the revival of a dead language
  3. Language Reform – facilitation of the use of a language through, for example, simplification of its vocabulary or spelling system
  4. Language Standardization – ensuring that one language or dialect in a region is accepted as the major language of that region for general use
  5. Lexical Modernization – bridging the gap between a language’s lexicon and new terminology arising from modern technology (qtd in Eastman 28)

Language planners may concentrate on only one area or shift back and forth depending on the needs of the speech community. While various international language academies have targeted each of these five objectives at one time or another, the eighteenth century proposals for an English academy are concerned primarily with language purification and standardization. These two objectives are often intertwined: linguistic uniformity can be achieved through a program of linguistic purism in which some elements of a language are labeled desirable (pure) and others undesirable (impure); the pure elements then become the basis for the language standard. Purification efforts “can be internal (or social), aimed at the ‘impurities’ of native origin (dialecticisms, neologisms, archaisms, slang, cant elements, etc.) and external (or xenophobic) ‘struggling’ against external influences, such as foreign words, loanwords, calques, internationalisms” (Geers 98). The motivations behind linguistic purism are diverse and include political, aesthetic and psychological factors, as well as more pragmatic intentions, like the need for intelligibility (Thomas 59-60). As we will see in our discussion of Swift’s Proposal, the desire to preserve a connection to the past, and, by so doing, “retain maximal solidarity with the previous speakers of a language, as represented by a corpus of literary tradition” is a particularly powerful motivation (53). At root, linguistic purism is a response to elements (whether internal or external) that are perceived to threaten the autonomy and well-being of a language.

L’ Academie Francaise

The French Academy was not the first language academy – that distinction belongs to the Italian Accademia della Crusca, which was founded in 1583. Yet, during the eighteenth century, the French Academy was the model most often invoked by the “projectors” of an English academy. Despite the historical importance of the French Academy, both nationally and internationally, the institution has received scant critical attention, especially in English – an oversight which is perhaps a result of the descriptive bias of modern linguistics.

The French Academy began as a series of informal social gatherings held by a small collection of notable men of letters. In 1634, Cardinal Richelieu suggested that the informal association seek official state recognition, and, a year later, the French Academy was established. Membership soon after expanded from the core nucleus to total forty members or “immortals.” The linguistic program of the French Academy was influenced by the linguistic purism of Francois de Malherbe (1555-1628), who sought to purify the French language by proscribing obsolete words, dialectisms and neologisms (internal “impurities”) as well as those of foreign and Latin origins (external “impurities”) (Thomas 109). The main vehicle for this prescriptive project was the compilation of a dictionary. The daunting task was undertaken with some reluctance, as a 1639 letter from poet and Academy member Jean Chapelain candidly makes clear: “We have resolved to begin the Dictionary also; but inasmuch as it is a work of the whole body, the members bent themselves to it but slackly, for the reason that they expected from it neither individual honour or profit, and three fourths of them looked upon the work as a task. It has therefore remained suspended until a more favourable season” (qtd. in Robertson 203). It would take a series of “favourable seasons” – nearly sixty, in fact – before the dictionary was published in 1694. The dictionary shows the influence of Malherbe’s purism, as well as a preference for literary usage over scientific and commercial terminology; omitted were “entirely obsolete words, vulgar expletives, and words offensive to modesty […] [as well as] purely technical and scientific terms” (Robertson 210). In the estimation of Robert Hall, “the Academy’s dictionary was, even on its first appearance, manifestly an inferior job, as might be expected from a group of dilettantes with no competence or training as lexicographers” (Hall 180). Hall’s criticism points to a weakness in the academy system: for an academy’s policies to carry authority, its members should have some expertise in the field of language. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, at any given time during the history of the French Academy, less than half of its membership was composed of professional writers, and only two men with competent training in philology or lexicography have ever been members (192n24).

What role did the French Academy play in establishing French as a national language? In seventeenth century France, French was not yet the official national language, but simply a vernacular – and, importantly, a literary one – among several other competing languages, including Breton, Germanic dialects and Occitan (Cohen 167). By targeting its publications exclusively at French speakers and refusing to adjudicate on non-literary matters, the French Academy helped to cultivate the image of French as an elite, and, therefore, desirable language: “the Academy could establish the language as ‘pure’ and endow it with prestige, so that others would aspire to its use, thereby bringing about political integration and linguistic homogeneity” (Eastman 207). This rather simplified explanation of the origins of linguistic nationalism in France has been supplemented by the recent work of Paul Cohen, who argues that, in some ways, the French, as well as language historians, have overestimated the importance of the state-sponsored French Academy in imposing a linguistic standard on a socio-culturally and linguistically diverse country. In his study of language policy in the region of Bearn, Cohen concludes that “in certain contexts, national languages were not the inevitable offspring of central states, but rather the contingent outcomes of political struggle and cultural exchange between specific social groups and governments” (164).

The Academy in England: Necessary Intervention or Impractical Folly?

If, as Cohen suggests, the French have overestimated the actual importance of the French Academy, they are not the only ones; many seventeenth and eighteenth century English authors, like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, saw the French Academy as the only sure-fire way to save the English language from its rapid decline, provided, of course, that the model could be successfully transferred to England. The century following the Restoration was dominated by linguistic anxieties. Various authors of various stripes decried English’s chaotic orthography, the influx of loanwords, the popularity of jargon and cant, the habit of abbreviating, and the natural “harshness” of this Germanic tongue. As is often the case with linguistic complaints, the perceived decline in proper language usage was connected to a general decline in morality that many observers, including Swift, detected in post-Restoration England. Alongside the condemnation of linguistic impurities arose an urgent call for the development of a stable, written language, which, among other benefits, would allow future generations access to the current literature of the day.

Not only would an academy help correct the defects of English, but, in the eyes of seventeenth and eighteenth century authors, it would confer a much-needed sense of legitimacy upon the English language. Dryden laments the pitiable state of his native tongue: “We have yet [he wrote in 1693] no English prosodia, not so much as a tolerable dictionary, or a grammar; so that our language is in a manner barbarous; and what government will encourage any one, or more, who are capable of refining it, I know not” (qtd. in Monroe 114). Dryden’s claim that English is a “barbarous” language in need of civilizing reflects the sense of linguistic inferiority that subtends many eighteenth century linguistic complaints, including, in different ways, the proposals of Defoe and Swift. As Alok Yadav notes, “difficult as it may be for us to imagine, given the persistent celebration since the eighteenth century of the unrivaled richness of the British literary tradition, English literature would not automatically have been considered one of the “great” traditions at the start of the eighteenth century and contemporary English-language writers were very aware of this fact” (27). Especially when compared with the extra-territorial expansion and perceived near universality of French, English was considered a minor language by many, confined, for the most part, to Britain. At this point in history, of course, English’s eventual global domination would have been impossible to foresee. Rather, as the proposals of Defoe and Swift reveal, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, English was a language seeking legitimacy while struggling against various threats.

Defoe’s An Essay Upon Projects (1697)

Daniel Defoe’s An Essay Upon Projects was published during a brief respite from the protracted, and costly, wars between England and France. The collection of various proposals for social and economic reform – what he and his contemporaries ambivalently termed “projects” – is, as he points out in the Preface, very much a reaction to the ongoing conflict.[2] As a dissenter who viewed the Protestant King William III as a national saviour, the possibility of imperial overthrow by the French and the subsequent imposition of Catholicism was a constant source of anxiety for Defoe. Recollecting his childhood from the more secure vantage point of 1705, Defoe recalled how the fear of Popery drove him and many other dissenters to copy the Bible hastily into short-hand in case they would soon be prohibited from reading it (Richetti 3). But, when it came to appraising the strengths of the French, Defoe was remarkably generous. “Like other English men and women,” writes Katherine Clark, “he could condemn French popery, wooden shoes, and the ambitions of universal monarchy in one breath and grudgingly admire the achievements of Louis XIV and Richelieu in the next” (22).

In the chapter on language academies in An Essay Upon Projects, Defoe does not hesitate to “give the French their due” and readily concedes that the French Academy “stands foremost among all the Great Attempts in the Learned Part of the World” (90). Defoe goes so far as to claim that the purifying influence of the French Academy was responsible for French’s newly secured status as Europe’s most universal language. In actuality, the prestige and popularity of French in the eighteenth century was cultivated and sustained through a wide variety of social and cultural forums, including salons and French language periodicals (Yadav 89). Defoe’s overemphasis on the role that the French Academy played in establishing the cultural hegemony of French does, however, help to explain the sense of inferiority that continued to plague English at the beginning of the eighteenth century. If England had an academy, Defoe insists, “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” (91). As proof of English’s superiority, Defoe turns, rather ironically, to several French authorities who have commented upon certain virtues of his native tongue – namely its unrivalled capacity for “comprehensiveness of expression” – and then quotes the following lines from the English poet Wentworth Dillon:

For who did ever in French Authors see

The Comprehensive English Energy?

The weighty Bullion of one Sterling Line,

Drawn to French Wire wou’d through whole Pages shine. (90; italics reversed)

The claim that English is a more vigorous language than French recurs throughout the eighteenth century; in fact, during the latter half of the century, many who opposed the introduction of an English academy pointed to the enervated quality of French as evidence of the deleterious effects of a language academy (Read 148-9). For Defoe, then, English is not an inherently defective language; on the contrary, it possesses incredible potential. And if King William could develop this potential by founding an academy, he would have “an Opportunity to darken the Glory of the French King in Peace, as he has by his daring Attempts in the War” (90). Fighting on the battlefield may have halted, Defoe gently reminds his king, but the battle for national supremacy continues to wage in newspapers, dictionaries and theatres across Europe.

Having established that “the English Tongue is a Subject not at all less worthy the Labour of such a Society than the French” (89), Defoe outlines the broad objectives of his proposed academy:

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. (91)

At root, Defoe’s purism is motivated by a desire for intelligibility. He wants to restrict new and unfamiliar coinages, which, by definition, fall outside the sanction of custom. Because neologisms circumvent the authority of custom, they must be approved by a different authority: the academy, which would have the powers to censure and correct the pedantic and fame-seeking writers who misguidedly introduce new constructions into the language. Interestingly, Defoe compares these neologizers to counterfeiters. The arbiters of proper style must themselves practice what they preach; thus, the academy should exclude from membership academics, lawyers, physicians and clergymen, those whose professions encourage the use of jargon, ornate vocabulary and specialized terminology. Instead, Defoe proposes that the academy be composed of thirty-six “Gentlemen,” including twelve who are appointed as a result of “meer Merit” (91-2). Above all else, the members of the academy must work to curb the proliferation of nonsensical language that violates or obscures the “direct Signification of Words” (94). Swearing, which Defoe condemns at length, is the most extreme and dangerous form of non-signifying language. The specter of language without signification – the possibility that a speaker “may talk a great deal, but say nothing” (94) – was particularly troubling for Defoe, who, in the words of Clark, “saw the exchange of ideas, signified by words, as part of God’s providential plan for man’s improvement” (95). Defoe’s meritocratic criteria for membership in his academy and the emphasis on intelligibility suggests a different set of priorities than the more specialized, elitist and fundamentally literary agenda that governed the operation of the French Academy.

            Instead of an ornate, affected style, which threatens to devolve into non-signifying language, Defoe championed plain prose. In An Essay Upon Projects, for instance, Defoe attempts to deflect criticism that his language is dull by admitting that he strove for a “Free and Familiar” style (127). Interestingly, some of his most explicit pronouncements on language and style appear in a chapter of The Complete English Tradesman (1725); after praising the virtues of “easy, plain, and familiar language,”  Defoe goes on to write: “If any man were to ask me, what I would suppose to be a perfect style, or language, I would answer, that in which a man speaking to five hundred people, all of common and various capacities, should be understood by them all” (19). Of course, Defoe was not alone in advocating for “easy, plain, and familiar language:” “throughout the seventeenth century,” writes E. Anthony James, “there occurred a strong and widespread movement away from the highly embellished, opulent ‘baroque’ prose of the Jacobean period and toward a simpler, plainer, more direct style” (12). This well-observed shift was propelled by a number of factors, including the influence of Puritan aesthetics and Baconian theories of language and science. I think Defoe’s insistence on intelligibility as the ultimate goal of discourse suggests another contemporary concern as well: the need for standardized forms of communication. Although Defoe does not articulate the need for a standardized English as urgently or clearly as, say, Swift, as a man actively involved in various forms of commerce, Defoe would be acutely aware of how uniform prices, products and language practices increase profitability by reducing transaction costs. The historian Derek Keene describes the connection between England’s increasing economic productivity and standardization as follows: “London is likely to have had an influence in the emergence of Standard English not primarily as a site of government and power but rather as an engine of communication and exchange which enabled ideas and information to be distributed and business to be done across an increasingly extensive, complex and varied field” (111). A standardized language could unite this “complex and varied field” in the same way that a person speaking a widely intelligible language could unite a diverse group of five hundred listeners; and, as a result, the networks of the economy are strengthened, as well as the foundation for a national consciousness cemented.

            As various sociolinguists have noted, standardization is often achieved through a program of linguistic purification, since concepts of purity enable the privileging of certain elements of a language over others. Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries who eagerly sought to purge English of non-native elements, however, Defoe seems particularly sensitive to the difficulties involved in applying standards of purity to the English language.[3] In 1701, he published the satirical poem “The True Born Englishman” as a response to xenophobic attacks against the Dutch-born King William. Throughout his country’s history, Defoe points out, the blood – and language – of the English people have become so intermingled with various conquering nations, like the Danes and the Normans, that the notion of purity, whether racial or linguistic, has long ceased to have any practical value:

The Customs, Sirnames, Languages, and Manners

Of all these Nations are their own Explainers:
Whose Relicks are so lasting and so strong,
They ha' left a Shiboleth upon our Tongue;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman Saxon, Danish Norman English. (12)

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the “pure” English elements from the “impure” foreign elements in a language with such mixed heritage. Although it is tricky to locate Defoe’s precise stance among the shifting ground of satire, he does not seem too concerned that English lacks the kind of ancient pedigree that distinguishes French and Italian. Many of his contemporaries were not so ambivalent about the belatedness of the English literary tradition. Among these discontents was Jonathan Swift, who, though frequently at odds with Defoe, agreed with his rival wholeheartedly on the need for an English academy.

Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712)

In Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits the Lagadan Academy, a breeding ground of pseudo-science and absurd literalism, where one group of academicians is hard at work trying to “shorten Discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one, and leaving out Verbs and Participles; because in Reality all things imaginable are but Nouns” (qtd. in Francus 139). Given the level of vitriol directed at the academy system, it is surprising that, fourteen years earlier, Swift viewed a language academy as an essential addition to England’s cultural landscape. Swift’s Proposal is a curious document, drafted in an uneasy tone and riddled with contradictions. Critics have tried to explain the tension by arguing that Swift had too much at stake, personally and politically, to achieve the distance required for successful satire. Marilyn Francus reads the Proposal as a “Swiftian misfire,” in which Swift’s satiric impulse collides with his ego; without an academy to halt language change, Swift’s almost pathological desire for literary immortality would be thwarted because his works would be unreadable within fifty years (120). Similarly, Ann Cline Kelly argues that the pretentiousness and turgidity of Swift’s prose is motivated in part by a need to prove to his literary and political peers that he was a serious thinker and not a mere writer of trifles (100). While it is difficult to overlook Swift’s personal insecurities, I think it is more interesting to read Swift’s Proposal in light of larger, national insecurities about the English language.

In his broad analysis of prescriptivism in eighteenth-century England, Richard J. Watts observes that a significant shift in widely held ideas about language – what he calls “language myths” – occurs around the end of the reign of Queen Anne. Prior to this period, English was frequently praised for its copiousness or variety, its dialectal richness; for example, at the end of the sixteenth century, Richard Carew writes:

Moreover the copiousness of our Language appeareth in the diversity of our Dialects, for we have Court and we have Countrey English, we have Northern and Southern, gross and ordinary, which differs from each other, not only in terminations, but also in many words, terms, and phrases, and express the same thing in divers sorts, yet all write English alike. (qtd. in Watts 43)

According to Watts, the myth of language variety was eventually superseded by the myth of the undesirability of language change (40). This inversion of language myths is reflected in Swift’s Proposal: Swift complains about the threat that various dialects pose to intelligibility, while condemning the rapid pace of linguistic change he observed in English. Concerning dialects, he writes, “Not only the several Towns and Countries of England, have a different way of Pronouncing, but even here in London, they clip their Words after one Manner about the Court, another in the City, and a third in the Suburbs; and in a few Years, it is probable, will all differ from themselves, as Fancy or Fashion shall direct” (23). Unlike Carew, Swift views the profusion of dialect – especially when represented orthographically –  as a danger, an encroachment on a written standard; for Swift, the “curtailed” and “varied” spelling in “modern Books and Pamphlets” is proof that the inhabitants of Britain do not, in fact, “all write English alike” (23).

Rather than let fancy or fashion dictate usage, Swift argues, English speakers should be guided by an academy, which would have the authority necessary to “fix,” or standardize, the language. Swift goes so far as to insist that preventing language change is more important than perfecting the language: “For I am of Opinion, that it is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing” (31). And, earlier in the Proposal, he writes, “I see no absolute Necessity why any Language should be perpetually changing” (16). Critics have often detected a note of naivety in Swift’s remarks on language change, especially when compared with the observations of Samuel Johnson, who, as we will see, seems to admit the futility of trying to “fix” language. However, I’m not so sure that Swift himself would deny the inevitability of language change; rather, what he seems to abhor is the “perpetually changing” state of English, its extreme mutability, the fact that the language of Chaucer differs significantly from his own. In his discussion of language change, Swift cites examples of languages that have resisted “perpetual” change and experienced lengthy periods of stability, including Greek, Latin and Chinese, as well as modern languages, like German, Spanish and Italian (16-7). Swift’s concern over the particular mutability of English was shared by other seventeenth century authors, who, like Swift, doubted whether a great national literary tradition could be established upon such a precarious and unstable foundation as English (Yadav 33).

            Before English could be “fixed,” however, it should be corrected. Much of the Proposal is occupied with diagnosing the “natural Disadvantages” of the English language (17). For Swift, English must always struggle to overcome the deficiencies of its Germanic origins; for example, in his discussion of abbreviation, Swift observes: “This perpetual Disposition to shorten our Words, by retrenching the Vowels, is nothing else but a tendency to lapse into the Barbarity of those Northern Nations from whom we are descended, and whose Languages labour all under the same Defect” (26). Compared with Spanish, French and Italian, English sounds decidedly harsher and rougher – a fact that Swift attributes partly to the cold climate of Britain.

Along with the innate handicap of its Northern roots, argues Swift, English has suffered over time from a history of military conquest. The “constant Intercourse between France and England” during the past several centuries resulted in the importation of numerous French loan words (11). Swift insists that foreign terms should be avoided. According to Francus, Swift’s purism is predicated on the belief that “the mingling of cultures generates new, weaker, hybrid forms of language, while physical and social barriers keep language and culture pure” (128). But what elements of English does Swift consider “pure”? Although Swift considers change undesirable, he clearly does not endorse the kind of “archaizing purism” of the sixteenth and seventeenth century reformers like John Cheke, who sought to purge English of foreign influence and return the language to its monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon roots. Instead, Swift seems to associate “purity” with Latin. He implies that English would be a superior language if it contained more Latin and laments the fact that “the Latin Tongue, in its Purity, was never in this Island” (9). Thus, when Swift uses foreign terms in his own work, they are almost always Latinate (Francus 115). Swift’s impractical concept of linguistic “purity” reveals the extent to which the language purist’s designation of “pure” and “impure” relies on subjective, often idiosyncratic, criteria.

The avoidance of loan words is frequently motivated by a fear of foreign domination. This fear manifests itself primarily as concern over the sovereignty of one’s native language, but can also extend to fears about cultural and even political subjugation (Thomas 48).  Interestingly, Swift considers the possibility of the foreign conquest of England – and the subsequent death of spoken English – to be a real, if somewhat remote, threat: “and if [English] were once refined to a certain Standard, perhaps there might be Ways found out to fix it for ever; or at least till we are invaded and made a Conquest by some other State; and even then our best Writings might probably be preserved with Care, and grow into Esteem, and the Authors have a Chance for Immortality” (15). Swift seems to share some of Defoe’s anxieties over the insecure political and military future of England. Even as late as the last quarter of the eighteenth century, we should remember, England’s political security and imperial domination were by no means assured (Yadav 11).

            How exactly did Swift propose to remedy the defects of English? Even more so than Defoe, Swift is frustratingly vague in his Proposal. Eager to diagnose the problems with English, he does not suggest any concrete solutions, not even recognizing, as Dryden did, the need for an authoritative English dictionary. Instead, Swift offers extremely general guidelines:

In order to reform our Language, I conceive, My Lord, that a free judicious Choice should be made of such Persons, as are generally allowed to be best qualified for such a Work, without any regard to Quality, Party, or Profession. These, to a certain Number at least, should assemble at some appointed Time and Place, and fix on Rules by which they design to proceed. What methods they will take, is not for me to prescribe. (29)

As Francus notes, Swift’s refusal to prescribe a set methodology is likely motivated in part by a desire to appeal to a broad spectrum without alienating any prospective supporters (124). However, Swift’s attempts to stress the nonpartisan nature of the Academy’s membership are undercut by the fulsome praise he lavishes upon the addressee of his Proposal, Lord Treasurer Robert Harley. Swift’s praise of Harley virtually assured that the academy would be viewed as a specifically Tory project that would naturally draw opposition from the Whigs. Within two weeks of the Proposal’s appearance, two Whig Pamphleteers published scathing responses that combined denunciations of the wit and competence of the Tories with personal attacks on Swift’s character and anti-French sentiment. Referring to the French Academy, John Oldmixion pointedly asks, “What Law of ours Impowers any body to order our Language to be Inspected, and who is there that wou’d think himself oblig’d to obey him in it?” (qtd. in Francus 136) For Oldmixion, the idea of an English academy smacks not only of Tory oppression, but conflicts with the sense of liberty prized by English citizens. By most accounts, Swift’s Proposal very nearly succeeded; in fact, according to the head note of the 1735 edition, the preparations for an English academy would have been completed if not for the unfortunate death of the queen. Given that this version was likely authorized by Swift himself, we should perhaps take it with a grain of salt. The comments of Oldmixion testify to the fact that the English academy was not universally supported. Some commentators saw the academy system as impractical and unsuited to English culture. Included among these skeptics was perhaps the most influential observer of English in the eighteenth century: Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and “Fixing” the Language

In a 1755 review of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, Adam Smith compares the single-handed effort of Johnson with the lexicographical productions of the continental academies:

When we compare this book with other dictionaries, the merit of its author appears very extraordinary. Those which in modern languages have gained the most esteem, are that of the French academy, and that of the academy Della Crusca. Both these were composed by a numerous society of learned men, and took up a longer time in the composition, than the life of a single person could well have afforded. The Dictionary of the English language is the work of a single person, and composed in a period of time very inconsiderable, when compared with the extent of the work. (qtd. in Kolb and Sledd 176)

Smith’s remarks reflect a critical commonplace that was present in the eighteenth century (and one which continues today): whereas proper usage in French and Italian was overseen by the dictates of an academy, in England, the linguistic program was set by the work of individuals.[4] Chief among these individuals was Johnson, who, in the Preface to his Dictionary, draws his own parallels between his work and the dictionaries produced by the French and Italian academies. Although Johnson may have been indebted to the methodology of the European academies, to what extent did he share their puristic outlook? For B. S. Monroe, Johnson represents the “common sense” view that language cannot be properly regulated or permanently fixed (119). Such a position finds support in Johnson’s well-known remarks on language change, such as his claim in the Preface that “sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints” (10).  However, recent criticism has interrogated the assumptions of traditional Johnsonians eager to minimize Johnson’s commitment to prescriptivism. Elizabeth Hendrick argues that first draft of The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language articulates a desire to “purify and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom,” and, at least in 1747, Johnson “saw the Dictionary mainly as the linguistic dimension of a larger project for social order in which he generally believed as strongly as did any of his more palpably reformist contemporaries” (423). And Adam R. Beach argues that although Johnson seems to admit the inevitability of language change, he exhorts his fellow English-speakers to struggle to slow down change wherever possible – a position which echoes Swift’s desire to inhibit the “perpetually changing” English language (126). Indeed, Johnson seems to share several of Swift’s linguistic anxieties. In the Preface, Johnson laments the disruptive effects that the various dialects of English have had on the intelligibility of the language, while, in the Plan, he compares himself to the soldiers of Caesar who conquered and civilized Britain, and by doing so, implies that English is still, on some level, barbaric (Beach 124-5).

Although Johnson and Swift might have shared a similar reformist temperament and some of the same linguistic concerns, their views departed radically on the issue of an English academy. Johnson is vehement in his opposition to the idea. Even if an academy might work in theory – and Johnson is reluctant to concede this point– the political and cultural landscape of his England would prevent it from making any worthwhile contributions. Without the backing of an absolute government, the directives of an academy would be mere recommendations. And, given the current anti-authoritarian climate, Johnson adds, “the edicts of an English academy would, probably, be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them” (qtd. in Monroe 121). Nor does Johnson begrudge the fact that an academy is not suited to England; rather, he seems to celebrate the independence and freedom of English speakers: “If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our stile, which I, who can never wish to see dependence multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to stop the license of translatours” (120). Johnson’s appeal to “the spirit of English liberty” as a justification for the lack of an academy represents a shift in attitude that, as we saw with Bryson’s comments, continues through the present.

The extent of the Dictionary’s influence on the English language continues to be debated, but the stabilizing effect of English dictionaries (and, in particular, Johnson’s) did much to stem the rapid linguistic change that so concerned Swift (Francus 101). Writing in 1782, the critic Percival Stockdale claimed that English writers now had the necessary guidance to avoid errors and improper constructions because of “the ingenious and successful endeavours of a Lowth, a Harris, and a Johnson, to improve and fix our English, as far as permanence can be given to a living language” (qtd. in Read 150). Nonetheless, proposals for English academies continued to appear throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, apparently undiscouraged by Johnson’s critical remarks.[5] By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the security of English was pretty well assured and the process of standardization was nearly fixed. English, it appeared, had triumphed without the help of an academy. 


Language academies currently expound, authorize and censor in dozens of countries across the globe from Spain to Malaysia. Other than the English Academy of South Africa, however, no academy exists to regulate English usage. An English academy now seems quite unnecessary, since one of, if not the main, purpose of language academies today is to protect a native language from the colonizing threat of English. In the case of some “minor languages,” the intervention of a language planning agency may be necessary to save them from extinction (Hohenhaus 175). Even a relatively secure language like German, with its one hundred million native speakers, now has a popular academy-like Verein Deutsche Sprache (“Association for the German Language”), which, among other purification efforts, provides an annual “award” to the most egregious use of English in German (Hoenhaus 161). And, for several decades, the French Academy has attempted (often unsuccessfully) to find native words to replace invading English terms, like baladier for “walkman,” even though its prescriptive attitude has softened in recent years (Ross 27).

The meteoric rise of English did not take place overnight, though, and, for much of the eighteenth century, the status of English was marginal, both in the eyes of continental observers and English authors. The proposals of Defoe and Swift were motivated by this sense of linguistic inferiority, as well as the pressing need to develop and elaborate a standard language for literary, and economic and political, reasons. It is difficult to say whether the failure of these proposals was simply a result of historical accident, as Swift would have us believe, or whether an academy was fundamentally unsuited to the political and social climate of England, as Johnson maintained. George Thomas attributes the failure of linguistic purism to gain significant traction in England to the fact that the country was never seriously threatened by a foreign power (48), but my analysis of Defoe’s and Swift’s proposals demonstrates that the threat of linguistic and even political domination was a source of concern for eighteenth century English authors. More important, I think, are the difficulties that are bound to arise when language purists attempt to locate the specifically English elements in the etymologically diverse language that Defoe cheekily called “Roman Saxon, Danish Norman English.” 

Works Cited

Ager, Dennis. Ideology and Image: Britain and Language. Clevedon UK: Multilingual Matters, 2003.

Beach, Adam R. “The Creation of a Classical Language in the Eighteenth Century: Standardizing English, Cultural Imperialism, and the Future of the Literary Canon.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.2 (2001): 117-141. 

Clark, Katherine. Daniel Defoe: The Whole Frame of Nature, Time and Providence. New York: Palgrave, 2007.

Cohen, Paul. “Linguistic Politics on the Periphery: Louis XIII, Béarn, and the Making of French as an Official Language in Early Modern France.” When Languages Collide: Perspectives on Language Conflict, Language Competition, and Language Coexistence. Eds. J. DeStefano, N.G. Jacobs, I. Lehiste. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2003. 165-200.

Defoe, Daniel. An Essay Upon Projects. London, 1697. The Stoke Newington Daniel Defoe Edition. Eds. Joyce D. Kennedy et al. New York: AMS, 1999.

---. The Complete English Tradesman. London, 1725. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.

---. The true-born Englishman a satyr. London, 1702. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The Gale Group. Dec. 16 2007 <>.

Eastman, Carol. Language Planning: An Introduction. San Francisco: Chandler, 1983.

Flasdieck, Hermann M. Der Gedanke einer englischen Sprachakademie in Vergangenheit und Gegenwert. Jena: Frommann, 1927.

Francus, Marilyn. The Converting Imagination: Linguistic Theory and Swift’s Satiric Prose. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994.

Geers, Maria. “A Comparative Study of Linguistic Purism in the History of England and Germany.” Linguistic Purism in the Germanic Languages. Eds. Nils Langer and Winifred V. Davies. New York: Walter de Gruyer, 2005.

Hall, Robert A. External History of the Romance Languages. New York: American Elsevier, 1974.

Hendrick, Elizabeth. “Fixing the Language: Johnson, Chesterfield, and The Plan of A Dictionary.” ELH 55.2 (1988): 421-42.

Hohenhaus, Peter. “Standardization, Language Change, Resistance and the Question of Linguistic Threat: 18th-Century English and Present-Day German.” Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Languages. Eds. Andrew R. Linn and Nicola McLelland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002.

James, E. Anthony. Daniel Defoe’s Many Voices: A Rhetorical Study of Prose Style and Literary Method. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1972.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd ed. London, 1755-6. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The Gale Group. 17 Dec. 2007 <>.

Keene, Derek. “Metropolitan values: migration, mobility and cultural norms, London 1100-1700.” The Development of Standard English, 1300-1800. Ed. Laura Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 93-114.

Kelly, Ann Cline. Swift and the English Language. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988.

Kolb, Gwin J. and James H. Sledd. “Johnson’s Dictionary and Lexicographical Tradition.” Modern Philology 50.3 (1953): 171-94.

Monroe, B. S. “An English Academy.” Modern Philology 8.1 (1910): 107-22.

Read, Allen Walker. “Suggestions for an Academy in England in the Latter Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Modern Philology 36.2 (1938): 145-56.

Reddick, Allen. “Revision and the Limits of Collaboration: Hands and Texts in Johnson’s Dictionary.” Anniversary Essays on Johnson’s Dictionary. Eds. Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 212-27.

Richetti, John. The Life of Daniel Defoe. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Robertson, Maclaren. A History of the French Academy, 1635[4]-1910, With an Outline Sketch of the Institute of France, Showing its Relation to its Constituent Academies. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910.

Ross, Nigel J. “Academies and Attitudes.” English Today 79, 20.3 (2004): 23-8.

Swift, Jonathan. A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. London, 1712. Ed. R. C. Alston. Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1969.

Thomas, George. Linguistic Purism. London: Longman, 1991.

Watts, Richard J. “Mythical strands in the ideology of prescriptivism.” The Development of Standard English, 1300-1800. Ed. Laura Wright. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 29-48.

Yadav, Alok. Before the Empire of English: Literature, Provinciality, and Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. New York: Palgrave, 2005.

[1] Other than Flasdieck, there has been no full length study devoted to the various proposals for an English academy. I have decided to focus on Defoe and Swift in detail because their proposals are the most well-known historically and together provide a revealing cross-section of the themes and concerns that inform many eighteenth century linguistic complaints.

[2] For a brief discussion of the meaning of the words “project” and “projector” in the eighteenth century, see Richetti 31-2.

[3] Defoe does criticize English writers for using foreign terms when English has plenty of native words that would suffice (James 10), but he seems to object to the threat posed to intelligibility and not to the “impure” nature of loanwords.

[4] It should of course be remembered that, despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, dictionaries were collaborative efforts. See, for example, Reddick. 

[5] For an overview of the debate surrounding the English academy in the latter half of the eighteenth century, see Read.