A History of ‘The History of the Language’

  • Tony Crowley


For historians of the study of language in Britain it has become a commonplace that the eighteenth century, in which the discourses of prescriptivism predominated, was superseded by a nineteenth-century reaction against such discourses. One such historian has declared that, ‘perhaps the greatest legacy of the nineteenth-century philologist was the study of language from an objective point of view, a view that has been adopted by twentieth-century linguists’. The cause of this shift, he argues, is that, ‘for the philologists, the study of language became removed from the social and rhetorical concerns of the eighteenth century, and thus became an abstract and objective study’ (Stalker, 1985, p.45). However, it will be the major contention of this text that no such shift from prescriptivism to descriptivism took place. Rather the study of language in Britain was to be still, in significant respects, as concerned with ‘social and rhetorical concerns’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as it had been in the eighteenth. The objectification of language, it will be argued, is a construction of the history of the study of language in Britain that cannot be supported by the evidence.


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  1. 3.
    Other early works of the same order as Latham’s were the Rev. M. Harrison’s The Rise, Progress and Present Structure of the English Language (1848)Google Scholar
  2. G.L. Craik’s Outlines of the History of the English Language for the use of the Junior Classes in Colleges and the Higher Classes in Schools (1851); and his Compendious History of English Literature and of the English Language from the Norman Conquest (1861).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was an early-nineteenth-century educational society much derided by radicals. For an analysis of such debates see R. Johnson, ‘“Really useful Knowledge”: radical education and working-class culture, 1790–1848’, in J. Clarke et al, Working Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory (London, Hutchinson, 1979), pp. 75–102.Google Scholar

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© Tony Crowley 1989

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  • Tony Crowley

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