Defoe’s Essay upon Projects, which played a prominent part in the reinterpretation of Swift’s Proposal in chapter 7, suggests that the society to be set up in England along the lines of the Academie Frangaise should be composed of “none but persons of the first figure in learning”. Unlike Johnson, however, he does give us some hints as to what he means by “best” by indicating those persons who should not be chosen as members of his proposed society.

He specifies that the work of this society

should be to encourage polite learning, to polish and refine the English tongue, and advance the so much neglected faculty of correct language, to establish purity and propriety of style, and to purge it from all the irregular additions that ignorance and affectation have introduced; and all those innovations in speech, if I may call them such, which some dogmatic writers have the confidence to foster upon their native language, as if their authority were sufficient to make their own fancy legitimate. (Defoe 1697, in Bredvold, Root and Sherburn 1932: 3)

From the aims of the society as set out here by Defoe (see the underlined phrases in the above quotation), it would appear that he places the blame for the faults that need to be corrected on the shoulders of the presumed authority of certain “dogmatic writers”, thus giving us a clear example of a writer in his role of critic passing moral judgment on fellow writers on the grounds of incorrect language and innovations in speech. So polite, or polished, language can be equated with correct language, purified language, language in which no change is condoned. Like Swift, but more seriously than Swift, Defoe uses the discourse of the pure language myth and the immutability myth. He also sets up and runs the following additional metaphorical blends, which turn out to be crucial throughout the eighteenth century:


The myth constructed from these blends will henceforth be called the myth of the polite language. Thus, as early as Defoe (1697), we recognise a nexus of closely associated myths guiding an ideological discourse on standardisation that was soon to develop into a discourse archive during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (cf. Milroy & Milroy 1999; Watts 1999b and 2002). This discourse was destined to become the lynchpin of the “history of the language” discourse.

Defoe’s conditions for admission into his proposed “society” give us further clues as to the meaning of “politeness” and “polite language” at the beginning of the eighteenth century:

Into this society should be admitted none but persons eminent for learning, and yet none, or but very few, whose business or trade was learning. For I may be allowed, I suppose, to say we have seen many great scholars mere learned men, and graduates in the last degree of study, whose English has been far from polite, full of stiffness and affectation, hard words, and long unusual coupling of syllables and sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the ear, and shock the reader both in expression and understanding. (3)

Persons well known for their learning may become members of Defoe’s proposed society, but not scholars from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, since their language is reprehensible by his standards. From what he says above, we can conclude that polite language must be fluent, easy to understand and without unnecessary syntactic complexity. It must be “easy” and “melodious” on the ear, and it must not shock the reader either in what it expresses or in the way it is expressed. In addition, it is not to be acquired in the major seats of learning.

Defoe then goes on to talk about the “spoilers and destroyers of a man’s discourse”, and he asks his reader “a little to foul his mouth with the brutish, sordid, senseless expressions which some gentlemen call polite English, and speaking with a grace”. Those who claim to speak “polite English” but who lower themselves to use “brutish, sordid, senseless expressions” have “the character of a gentleman with a good estate, and of a good family, and with tolerable parts”, but they do not cut a polished figure “for want of education”. There are, we might say, gentlemen and gentlemen, and the difference lies in the degree to which each group uses polite English. However, we might wonder where a member of the landed gentry is to acquire the art of speaking and writing polite English if not at the universities.

To summarise Defoe’s thoughts on his proposed language society, “polite” learning is closely associated with “polishing” and “refining” the English

language and with establishing “purity and propriety of style”, and it is placed in opposition to “ignorance and affectation” and to “innovations in speech”.

I argue in this chapter that the term “polite” in the early eighteenth century in Britain, particularly when it was connected with language use, was manipulated in a socially selective way—that politeness was an attribute of the legitimate language variety within the early-eighteenth-century linguistic marketplace in Britain, access to which was equivalent to access to high social status. It was, in other words, part of an embryonic ideological discourse of standardisation. I shall also argue that determining who was a member of “polite society” was likewise in the hands of those who had already gained access. Defoe makes this quite explicit at one point:

I would therefore have this society wholly composed of gentlemen, whereof twelve to be of the nobility, if possible, and twelve private gentlemen, and a class of twelve to be left open for mere merit, let it be found in who or what sort it would, which would lie as the crown of their study, who have done something eminent to deserve it. (Defoe 1698, in Bredvold et al. 1932: 4)

The nobility and the gentry are qualified to decide what should be deemed “polite English”, and the implication is that they should also decide on which 12 scholars are worthy of admission to the society, thereby completing their number.

Before continuing, however, we need to define what Defoe understood by terms such as “nobility” and “gentlemen”, as they will be used in this chapter to refer to what we call “social classes” today. The “nobility” included those members of society with inherited titles who possessed the hereditary right (and often the obligation) to appear at the royal court and to sit in the House of Lords (and this included the bishops of the Church of England). The term “gentry” was used to refer to a social class of hereditary landowners with or without inherited titles (although many of them received knighthoods) but without any obligation to attend at the royal court and generally with no hereditary right to sit in the House of Lords. The gentry, who will be central to my argument in this chapter, thus constituted a powerful rural-based landowning class with no necessary affinities to the section of society that is often referred to as the “bourgeoisie”.[1] The term “bourgeoisie” is certainly not coextensive with the gentry (although there might have been overlaps) and is more frequently used to refer to the wealthy urban middle classes of cities such as London, Bath and Norwich. The term “middle classes” was not generally used in the eighteenth century, but our modern term can certainly be used to refer to wealthy citizens who, through their wealth and influence, however these were acquired, had been steadily gaining in social prestige since Elizabethan times and were to compete with the gentry for social standing throughout the eighteenth century.

In the following sections, I also show how the concept of politeness in early-eighteenth-century Britain had already been subtly changed from the second half of the seventeenth century, when it was taken over from French conduct writers such as La Bruyere, the Abbe de Bellegarde and Antoine de Courtin (cf. Ketcham 1985: chap. 2).

  • [1] German writers often to refer to the gentry as the Kleinadel (“lower nobility”) but this is inappropriateinasmuch as many of the gentry did not possess hereditary titles, having risen through the ranks of the yeomanry in the late medieval and early modern periods of English history.
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