Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Age of Reason and the spread of English

What non-English-speaking people would have taken the trouble to learn English in 1700? For study and diplomacy, the answer is practically nobody. That had changed by the year 1800: English had become an important language. Now, the language of the United States is predominant and more people are learning English than the total number of native speakers. The roots of this expansion are in the Eighteenth Century, and inextricably tied to the literature and history of the period.
The Seventeenth Century had closed with a triumph of scientific reasoning. Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Science, which at that time was called Natural Philosophy, began its ascendancy over traditional philosophy and religion: it concerned itself with publicly observable phenomena and not with the subjective or wishful aspects of the individual human mind. Newton wrote for an international audience of educated men. He wrote in Latin.
Latin was still the international academic language of Europe. It was also the language of the Roman Church and possessed the prestige of the ages; and it was a necessary part of any well-to-do child's education. Academies wrote in Latin. Diplomats wrote and spoke French, and French was the language of the courts of Europe.
So, the predominant languages of the Eighteenth Century were associated in the European mind with two enduring institutions - Church and Monarchy. It was these two institutions that came under particular attack during the Enlightenment.
This was nothing new. The Protestants had broken with Rome because of its arrogance in claiming to be the direct successor of the spiritual Roman Empire in the 1500s. The English had overthrown their monarch in the 1600s. In 1700, the idea of Rome persisted as a community - one church catholic and universal - though its geography had little to do with the secular empire of Rome, which had included the whole of North Africa, together with the Middle East; whereas in the Eighteenth Century most points east and south of Vienna were in the hands of the Moslem Ottomans. Indeed, there was a European institution that called itself the Holy Roman Empire up until 1806. Voltaire stated the obvious when he pointed out that it was neither Holy nor Roman - it was German. But the idea of Rome persisted.
There were two aspects of the Roman idea which appealed to two different factions. Rome as Empire attracted the Catholic Church and Absolute Monarchies. Rome as Republic drew the attention of men who wanted to change the existing order of government and society. The imperial notion had proved extremely durable. It was more than a blend of myths. It had represented peace, order and security to an uncertain medieval world. It was something to hold on to.
To the rationalists, the underlying consistency of the laws of nature should be reflected in the consistency of natural laws of man. The idea of The Rights of Man gained currency. However, the fundamental difference between the two is that natural laws have automatic consequences, whereas the laws of man require administration. Were men to constitute and administer fair government, then mankind would be on the road of progress. Men would return to a natural state of harmony with the removal of iniquity and inequity.
What models of government were available in history and in what way did men contract to be part of this government? There was the practical Roman republican model of laws and administration and there was the late Roman ideal of simple Christian community as a House of Peace - a Pax Romana.
Take Roman republican virtues of thrift and hard work. Take noble protestant yeomen. Mix them in a place with a classical name such as Philadelphia (Greek not Latin) and you have an ideal city.
The concept of a simpler and purer Rome was current in the Eighteenth Century. However, its realisation was prevented by the mundane institutions of Church and Monarchy which had become moribund: they were no longer holy and roman and so deserved neither respect nor belief among the rationalists. Also, to the Protestants, they represented an arrogant and unaccountable intermediary between men and their God; an unnecessary and luxurious obstacle which ruled by might and not right. Men had been given brains: it was up to men to use them.
The Church and Monarchy had also become entrenched elites. It was hard to get a look in if you were not well-born. They were not institutions of opportunity for those who believed that men could make their own way in the world by reason of their lights and efforts; though churches and monarchies, like political parties, have never been obstacles to the true opportunist.
This was the significance of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the 13 American Colonies on 4 July 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
The American Declaration of Independence was written in English. At its inception, the United States declared itself to be an English-speaking country. Although, in the next century, Mr Noah Webster might have preferred the revolutionary title Dictionary of the American Language, he decided to call his great work An American Dictionary of the English Language. English it was and English it is.
The rational proposition was made that men are capable of governing themselves, in their own interests, by common consent. And that simple proposition was made in plain language.
English was, by this time, a fairly standardised written language. Printing presses had been in operation for two and a half centuries and spelling had gelled more by custom than by design. Dr Johnson had interfered with some spellings, insisting, for example, that dett be spelt debt for (bad) etymological reasons. Noah Webster would do the same in Massachusetts. There were 26 letters in the English alphabet, j and v having been added. The golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London had established an educated and mercantile form of English. The King James Bible of 1611, appointed to be read in churches, and The Book of Common Prayer, meant that all Protestants heard the same words for the same texts - though, of course, they heard regional variations of pronunciation. Charles I had passed a law on the standardisation of chapbooks by which itinerant hawkers peddled the rudiments of literacy.
The language of Cambridge England passed directly to Cambridge Massachusetts where Stephen Day founded the first press in 1639. Hezekiah Usher of Boston added books to his General Store list of commodities in 1647.
There are no census figures for literacy in the Eighteenth Century, but there are detailed accounts of the number of printing presses in operation. No press could operate without a licence, granted by the Lord Chancellor's office which was also responsible for censorship. So, in the 1760s, the question is not how many people were literate but how many were completely illiterate? Universal literacy was not achieved until the late Nineteenth Century, but it is likely that the majority of English people had at least a basic knowledge of reading and writing a century before - perhaps 80%.
Protestants insisted on literacy, and the United States was largely a Protestant creation. So, literacy among the early American settlers was high. Their texts were religious rather than political. They knew their Bible. There were chapbooks of homiletics. The four editions of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1570-1583, were standard fare in Protestant homes and shaped Protestant views of The Inquisition and the reign of Bloody Mary for a century. Also, from its publication in 1678, the other book that ranked next to the Bible was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.
Newton, hardly at the same time, came out to it from Cambridge along the old Roman road, that had survived unmended for twelve centuries. At Stourbridge he bought prisms in the Dutch Row with which to unweave the rainbow.
'The Pilgrim's Progress' was probably the last truly popular work of English fiction, in that it appealed to all sections of society who read or heard it. Parts of the book have passed into the language, so that even those who have never read it may well know The Slough of Despond, Giant Despair and Doubting Castle, Mr Worldy-Wiseman, as well as Vanity Fair (taken by Thackeray as the title of his novel serialised 1847/48).
It is still a very powerful allegory of a pilgrim's passage through this world in hope of achieving the Celestial City. It touches the dark pit of the Protestant mind as well as the rapture of light. Bunyan knew Foxe's book and consigned Faithful to the flames of martyrdom in the best tradition of gloom and uplift.
Languages gain prestige, in part, through their literature - and this includes their religious literature. Hebrew and Arabic, for example, can claim to be languages of revelation. That in itself is not enough to ensure the continuance of a language among anyone other than scholars and priests. Religious languages become fixed and dead. Living languages change. Literature is a changing medium. Add the new dimension of technical literature and English is now the nearest language to a Universal Tongue.
The British gave Great Power prestige to English in the Nineteenth Century. The United States sponsored English in the Twentieth. The British claimed, for good or ill, the largest Empire in the history of the world. The industrial and military power of the United States in August 1945, compared with the rest of the world, was unprecedented in history. New Rome had grown up in New England.
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