An Apology For The Study of Northern Antiquities by Elizabeth Elstob


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Page 1

EDNA C. DAVIS, Clark Memorial Library

* * * * *


The answerers who rushed into print in 1712 against Swift's _Proposal
for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue_ were
so obviously moved by the spirit of faction that, apart from a few
debating points and minor corrections, it is difficult to disentangle
their legitimate criticisms from their political prejudices. As
Professor Landa has written in his introduction to Oldmiron's
_Reflections on Dr. Swift's Letter to Harley_ and Mainwaring's
_The British Academy_ (Augustan Reprint Society, 1948): "It is not
as literature that these two answers to Swift are to be judged. They
are minor, though interesting, documents in political warfare which
cut athwart a significant cultural controversy."

Elizabeth Elstob's _Apology for the Study of Northern Antiquities_
prefixed to her _Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue_
is an answer of a very different kind. It did not appear until 1715;
it exhibits no political bias; it agrees with Swift's denunciation
of certain current linguistic habits; and it does not reject the
very idea of regulating the language as repugnant to the sturdy
independence of the Briton. Elizabeth Elstob speaks not for a party
but for the group of antiquarian scholars, led by Dr. Hickes, who
were developing and popularizing the study of the Anglo-Saxon origins
of the English language--a study which had really started in the
seventeenth century.

What irritated Miss Elstob in the _Proposal_ was not Swift's eulogy
or Harley and the Tory ministry, but his scornful reference to
antiquarians as "laborious men of low genius," his failure to
recognize that his manifest ignorance of the origins of the language
was any bar to his pronouncing on it or legislating for it, and his
repetition of some of the traditional criticisms of the Teutonic
elements in the language, in particular the monosyllables and
consonants. Her sense of injury was personal as well as academic.
Her brother William and her revered master Dr. Hickes were among the
antiquarians whom Swift had casually insulted, and she herself had
published an elaborate edition of _An English-Saxon Homily on the
Birthday of St. Gregory_ (1709) and was at work on an Anglo-Saxon
homilarium. Moreover she had a particular affection for her field
of study, because it had enabled her to surmount the obstacles to
learning which had been put in her path as a girl, and which had
prevented her, then, from acquiring a classical education. Her
_Rudiments_, the first Anglo-Saxon grammar written in English, was
specifically designed to encourage ladies suffering from similar
educational disabilities to find an intellectual pursuit. Her personal
indignation is shown in her sharp answer to Swift's insulting phrase,
and in her retaliatory classification of the Dean among the "light and
fluttering wits."

As a linguistic historian she has no difficulty in exposing Swift's
ignorance, and in establishing her claim that if there is any refining
or ascertaining of the English language to be done, the antiquarian
scholars must be consulted. But it is when she writes as a literary
critic, defending the English language, with its monosyllables and
consonants, as a literary medium, that she is most interesting.

There was nothing new in what Swift had said of the character of the
English language; he was merely echoing criticisms which had been
expressed frequently since the early sixteenth century. The number
of English monosyllables was sometimes complained of, because to
ears trained on the classical languages they sounded harsh, barking,
unfitted for eloquence; sometimes because they were believed to impede
the metrical flow in poetry; sometimes because, being particularly
characteristic of colloquial speech, they were considered low; and
often because they were associated with the languages of the Teutonic
tribes which had escaped the full refining influence of Roman
civilization. Swift followed writers like Nash and Dekker in
emphasizing the first and last of these objections.

There were, of course, stock answers to these stock objections.
Such criticism of one's mother tongue was said to be unpatriotic or
positively disloyal. If it was difficult to maintain that English was
as smooth and euphonious as Italian, it could be maintained that its
monosyllables and consonants gave it a characteristic and masculine
brevity and force. Monosyllables were also very convenient for the
formation of compound words, and, it was argued, should, when properly
managed, be an asset rather than a handicap to the English rhymester.
By the time Swift and Miss Elstob were writing, an increasing number
of antiquarian Germanophils (and also pro-Hanoverians) were prepared
to claim Teutonic descent with pride.

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