Swift's use of the language myths

It can hardly be doubted that the Proposal is framed as a linguistic complaint, but apart from the occurrence of the verb “complain” in line 22, paragraph 1, and in line 27, paragraph 2, no further reference is made in the text to its status as a complaint. The close look at the text in the previous subsection reveals that the complaint is levelled less at the language itself than at the language usage of sets of persons who are never explicitly named, but are very obviously, and sometimes pointedly, implied at a number of points throughout the text. To give the text the appearance of a complaint letter, however, Swift makes great use of many of the language myths that have been discussed in previous chapters. My interpretation of his use of the purelperfect language mythin the sequence looked at from paragraph 8 as an example of irony shows that we would be well advised not to ascribe to Swift automatically a belief in those myths. Quite possibly, he uses them because he assumes that his readers are likely to believe them and that they would be far more likely to read the pamphlet if it were framed as a complaint about the language. So it would be interesting to look a little more closely at the use he makes of the myths.

In paragraphs 3 and 4, several of the myths familiar to us from chapter 5 occur. Swift even adds a further “true” statement derived from the metaphorical blend to refer to language in lines 32-33 of paragraph 3 when he assumes that the Earl of Oxford will agree with the reason that “our Language is less Refined than those of Italy, Spain, or France”: . The purelperfect language myth then frames a reference to Latin in line 33. There is an interesting contradiction in what he writes here, however. He maintains that Latin was never used “in its Purity” in Britain, but he then denies that that it was “ever so vulgar in Britain, as it is known to have been in Gaul and Spain”. How are we meant to interpret this? The only explanation is that Latin as a vernacular tongue did not remain in Britain, whereas it was used as a vernacular in those countries in which Romance languages developed out of Latin.

There is a brief reference to “barbarians” in paragraph 3 (lines 36-37): “The Roman Legions here, were at length all recalled to help their Country against the Goths, and other barbarous Invaders”. A reference to the mixing of languages appears in paragraph 4 (lines 45-47 and 56-58): “Edward the Confessor having lived long in France, appears to be the first who introduced any mixture of the French Tongue with the Saxon; the Court affecting what the Prince was fond of, and others taking it up for a Fashion, as it is now with us” and “so that our Language, between two and three hundred Years ago, seems to have had a greater mixture with French than at present”. But neither case is referred to in connection with the barbarians myth or the contamination through contact myth. There is a hint of negative criticism in the suggestion that people took up the mixture of French and English from Edward the Confessor “for a Fashion”, and this is one of the points that Swift makes later about the “additions to the language” introduced by writers like Steele, Addison and Defoe.

Paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 contain references to the purelperfect language myth (“THE Roman Language arrived at great Perfection before it began to decay”, line 81, paragraph 6; “the Purity of the Greek Tongue may be allow’d to last”, line 95, par. 7) and to what we could call the myth of decay and death, which is driven by a “true” statement that we could add to those in fig. 5.1 in chapter 5: . However, Swift does not consider the issue of language decay and death to be worth spending much time over. As he says, “Whether our Language or the French will decline as fast as the Roman did, is a Question that would perhaps admit more Debate than it is worth” lines 69-70, paragraph 5. There is a clear link between the purelperfect language myth and the decay and death myth when Swift mentions that “THE Roman Language arrived at great Perfection before it began to decay” and then says of English that it “is not arrived to such a Degree of Perfection, as to make us apprehend any Thoughts of its Decay” (lines 86-87).

Swift also makes use of the discourse associated with the three other myths referred to in chapter 5, the barbarians myth, the good climatelsoil myth and the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth. In the case of the first of these three myths, the barbarians myth, there is no evidence to suggest irony. In the case of the second myth, the irony is clearly signalled, but Swift uses the third myth, the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth, to mock the Restoration poets. The first of these three myths is represented marginally in paragraph 13, lines 179-182: “This perpetual Disposition to shorten our Words, by retrenching the Vowels, is nothing else but a tendency to lapse into the Barbarity of those Northern Nations from whom we are descended, and whose Languages labour all under the same Defect.” However, it is difficult to tell whether the statement is meant seriously or not.

The pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth is echoed at the end of the following sequence (par. 10, lines 137-142):

There is another Set of Men who have contributed very much to the spoiling of the English Tongue; I mean the Poets, from the Time of the Restoration. These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables; yet, to save Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure.

The criticism of the Restoration poets fits into Swift’s overall plan to attack the Whigs, and his comment on the disharmonious quality of the sounds produced in their verses is highly reminiscent of William of Malmesbury’s scathing criticism of the language of the North, which Higden inserts into his Polychronicon. The problem is that Swift simply uses the myth to poke fun at the poets, which indicates that, of all the myths discussed in chapter 5, this local myth is the most deeply ingrained.

The good climate soil myth occurs in the following text sequence:

Now, as we struggle with an ill Climate to improve the nobler kinds of Fruit, we are at the Expence of Walls to receive and reverberate the faint Rays of the Sun, and fence against the Northern Blasts; we sometimes by the help of a good Soil equal the Production of warmer Countries, who have no need to be at so much Cost or Care. It is the same thing with respect to the politer Arts among us; and the same Defect of Heat which gives a Fierceness to our Natures, may contribute to that Roughness of our Language, which bears some Analogy to the harsh Fruit of colder Countries. (par. 13, lines 187-192)

The “nobler kinds of fruit” which the people of Britain have to struggle to grow by putting up fences to keep out the cold winds and building walls to reflect the light of the sun are compared to “the politer Arts among us”. The humour in the passage is created by the remark that trying to grow those nobler fruits is an expensive pastime and is only worth it if the soil is good. The harsh climate also has the effect of giving “a Fierceness to our Natures” and, says Swift, may make our language rough. However, note Swift’s subtle use of the modal verb “may” here. He does not state unequivocally that the climate is responsible for the language; he simply entertains the possibility. Since we already know what Swift really thinks of the “politer Arts” practised by those he is attacking, it is difficult to take this passage as anything other than tongue-in-cheek humour. Obviously, he is familiar with the good climatel soil myth, but the passage reveals that he mocks those who believe it.

There is enough evidence in the Proposal to suggest that the language myths he uses for his surface argument (i.e. the complaint) should not be taken at face value. This is important to bear in mind since Swift also introduces another language myth, which the Milroys take very seriously in constructing their complaint tradition, the myth of the immutability of languagei assuming that a perfect language should not be changed. The myth is referred to several times in the text, but it is inconsistent both with the idea of language decay and death and also with the idea that English has not reached perfection. How can English reach perfection if it does not change? Setting up this new language myth is equivalent to setting up yet another straw man in an attempt to divert his readers from his true intent in the Proposal, or, rather, to allow his readers to see through the argument to construct his other readings. In the following section, I shall discuss some of these alternative readings.

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