An Apology For The Study of Northern Antiquities by Elizabeth Elstob


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Page 2

Most of these arguments had been bandied backwards and forwards
rather inconclusively since the sixteenth century, and Addison in
_The Spectator_ No. 135 expresses a typically moderate opinion on
the matter: the English language, he says, abounds in monosyllables,
which gives us an opportunity of delivering our thoughts in few
sounds. This indeed takes off from the elegance of our tongue,
but at the same time expresses our ideas in the readiest manner,
and consequently answers the first design of speech better than
the multitude of syllables, which make the words of other
languages more tunable and sonorous.

It is likely that neither Swift nor Miss Elstob would have found much
to disagree with in that sentence. Swift certainly never proposed any
reduction in the number of English monosyllables, and the simplicity
of style which he described as "one of the greatest perfections in any
language," which seemed to him best exemplified in the English Bible,
and which he himself practised so brilliantly, has in English a very
marked monosyllabic character.

But in his enthusiasm to stamp out the practice of abbreviating,
beheading and curtailing polysyllables--a practice which seemed to
him a threat to both the elegance and permanence of the language--
he described it as part of a tendency of the English to relapse into
their Northern barbarity by multiplying monosyllables and eliding
vowels between the rough and frequent consonants of their language.
His ignorance of the historical origins of the language and his rather
hackneyed remarks on its character do not invalidate the general
scheme of his _Proposal_ or his particular criticisms of current
linguistic habits, but they did lay him open to the very penetrating
and decisive attack of Elizabeth Elstob.

In her reply to Swift she repeats all the stock defenses of the
English monosyllables and consonants, but, by presenting them in
combination, and in a manner at once scholarly and forceful, she
makes the most convincing case against Swift. Unlike most of her
predecessors, Miss Elstob is not on the defensive. She is always ready
to give a sharp personal turn to her scholarly refutations--as, for
instance, when she demonstrates the usefulness of monosyllables in
poetry by illustrations from a series of poets beginning with Homer
and ending with Swift. There can be little doubt that Swift is
decisively worsted in this argument.

It is not known whether Swift ever read Miss Elstob's _Rudiments_,
though it is interesting to notice a marked change of emphasis in
his references to the Anglo-Saxon language. In the _Proposal_ he had
declared with a pretense of knowledge, that Anglo-Saxon was "excepting
some few variations in the orthography... the same in most original
words with our present English, as well as with German and other
northern dialects." But in _An Abstract of the History of England_
(probably revised in 1719) he says that the English which came in
with the Saxons was "extremely different from what it is now." The
two statements are not incompatible, but the emphasis is remarkably
changed. It is possible that some friend had pointed out to Swift that
his earlier statement was too gross a simplification, or alternatively
that someone had drawn his attention to Elizabeth Elstob's

All writers owe much to the labors of scholarship and are generally
ill-advised to scorn or reject them, however uninspired and
uninspiring they may seem. Moreover when authors do enter into dispute
with "laborious men of low genius" they frequently meet with more than
their match. Miss Elstob's bold and aggressive defense of Northern
antiquities was remembered and cited by a later scholar, George
Ballard, as a warning to those who underestimated the importance of
a sound knowledge of the language. Indeed, he wrote, "I thought that
the bad success Dean Swift had met with in this affair from the
incomparably learned and ingenious Mrs. Elstob would have deterred
all others from once venturing in this affair." (John Nichols,
_Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century_,
1822, IV, 212.)

Charles Peake
University College, London

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:32