Friday, February 12, 2016

Lynda Mugglestone's "Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words"

Lynda Mugglestone is Professor of the History of English and Fellow and Tutor in English at Pembroke College. She is the editor of Lexicography and the OED (2002), The Oxford History of English (2006, 2012) and, with Freya Johnston, of Samuel Johnson: The Arc of the Pendulum (2012). Her books include Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol (1995, 2003), Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (2004) and Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2011).

Mugglestone applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Johnson’s caution is marked. His subsequent comments offer a careful critique of spelling reform and those who, in various ways, ‘take pleasure in departing from custom’ in their attempts to impose individual preferences on the language as a whole.

In terms of information on spelling within the Dictionary, the primary focus is, of course, Johnson’s specification of the headword. Set apart from the body of the entry, this is rendered visibly distinct through capitalization, hence DA’CTYLE, DA’LLIANCE (Johnson’s inserted apostrophe indicates the expected position of stress). As such, it provides a reference model by which Chesterfield’s ‘uncertainty’ might indeed be resolved; while other variants might therefore exist in ‘general custom’, the choice of headword will, of necessity, prioritize and select. It sets out, in effect, a preferred spelling, authorized by the lexicographer and made part of the dictionary’s intended role as reference book.

As eighteenth-century lexicography confirms, different dictionary-makers can, of course, draw on different patterns of ‘preference’ in this respect. If Johnson’s headwords institute forms such as publick, classick, logick, and musick as part of the reference model he provides, Benjamin Martin’s Linguæ Britannicæ Reformata, published in 1749, conversely discards what he termed the ‘redundant final k’. This reflected the ‘old Way’ of spelling, Martin argued, rather than that used by ‘later Writers’. ‘Preference’ in his Dictionary is given to headwords such as music and logic. ‘K is a very useless and superfluous letter . . . and should not be wrote at the end of words exceeding one syllable’, Buchanan’s Linguæ Britannicæ vera Pronunciatio (1757) likewise averred. Typical of the first half of the eighteenth century, Johnson’s preferred –ick would, at least in public printed texts, largely have disappeared by its end. His cautions on ‘reason’, ‘custom’, and ‘obedience’ prove, in this instance, well justified.
[endnotes not included]
Whether Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words passes or fails the page 99 test is a moot point. The page itself focusses on spelling, setting the stage for a wider exploration of Johnson’s engagement with written language in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755. Johnson had been expected – as his patron Lord Chesterfield had declared – to institute a reform of language, settling, stabilising, and regulating the variations which English all too often revealed. ‘One great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language’, Johnson agreed in the Plan of a Dictionary deferentially addressed to Chesterfield in 1747. Spelling was a vexed topic for contemporary writers; ‘auricular spelling’ (spelling by what a word sounded like) was, Chesterfield stressed, a particular fault of women, which rendered their missives illegible and incomprehensible. If dictionaries must, of necessity, provide a reference model of spelling, Johnson was expected to prescribe a newly corrected norm of use. That Johnson fixed English spelling still remains a prime element in popular conviction about what Johnson achieved.

And yet … Page 99 opens by considering Johnson’s evident scepticism about spelling reform. Writers in this tradition, he observes, evidently ‘take pleasure in departing from custom’ or the patterns of language in actual use. Spelling reformers, as Johnson adds with conspicuous irony, presumably ‘dread the fascination of lavish praise’. Comments of this kind do not suggest that Johnson was keen to meet the same fate. The rather different realities of what Johnson as dictionary-maker does in terms of spelling – especially in terms of his nuanced engagement with variation and change, are documented, however, on subsequent pages. Page 99 sets up the theme, of norms and dissent, but we need to read on – just as we do in order to explore the other dynamics which intervene in the fixed state of language to which Johnson was initially bound.

Chesterfield’s vision of English as a dictatorship of words, with Johnson in control, is rejected. Instead, images of suffrage, and democracy, can, as here, come to the fore. ‘I have left, in the examples, to every authour his own practice unmolested, that the reader may balance suffrages, and judge between us’, Johnson writes of the practice, and principles, which inform the Dictionary in this context. Johnson’s journey into words, as in the overarching theme of the book, does not always lead him – or us -- where we might expect.
Learn more about Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue