John Horne Tooke and the challenge to the distinction between "refined" and "vulgar" language

The work of John Horne Tooke, in particular his ЕПЕА nTEPOENTA, or the Diversions of Purley, presented a serious challenge to the eighteenth-century theory of language that assumed the existence of two forms of language in Britain, the legitimate standard written language of the “educated” (i.e. “refined” language) and the vulgar language of the uneducated. Diversions has also been the subject of controversy in linguistic circles.

Horne Tooke—who was born John Horne and assumed the name Tooke at the request of his friend and benefactor William Tooke, the owner of Purley Lodge south of Croydon in Surrey—was the son of a poulterer in Westminster. Despite his non-aristocratic origins, he nevertheless managed to gain entry to Eton and went on to study at Cambridge. He took orders in the Church of England and, despite opposition from both political parties on account of his membership in the radical organisation “The Society for Supporting the Bill of Rights”, obtained his MA degree in 1771. He resigned his benefice in the church in 1773 to take up the study of law and philology. Although Horne Tooke was elected to Parliament only once, in1801, for a relatively short period (to the rotten borough of Old Sarum[1]), he was associated with radical politicians such as Charles Fox, Thomas Paine and John Wilkes throughout his life and was instrumental in setting up the “The Society for Supporting the Bill of Rights” in 1769, pledging financial support for the radical politician John Wilkes, who was in jail after being prevented from taking his seat in Parliament after the Middlesex election[2] and was charged with organising popular opposition to the government and to the restriction of democracy. Horne Tooke was thus thoroughly conversant in the politics of his day. He

was also thoroughly conversant with the law, philosophy and, more important, with Anglo-Saxon.

The points mentioned in this very brief biographical sketch of Horne Tooke are significant in light of assessments made of his contribution to linguistics in Britain in the first 30-40 years of the nineteenth century. Scholars such as Aarsleff (1967), Land (1974), Culler (1976) and Bergheaud (1979) largely ignore the political import of the Diversions and advance the opinion that the book was one of the major reasons that the school of historical-comparative philology on the Continent did not really take hold in Britain till around the end of the nineteenth century. Crowley (2003) also hints at the significance of Horne Tooke’s book in the development of a peculiarly British approach to historical linguistics which he calls “the history of the language”. Even commentators on the Diversions in Horne Tooke’s day and for some time after his death conveniently played down the strong political aspect of his writing. Only Olivia Smith (1984) and Lamarre (1998) have seriously entertained the political import of the text.

Diversions was published in two volumes, the first appearing in 1798 and the second in 1805. Both volumes are written in the form of a discussion. In Volume 1 the discussion is between Horne Tooke (H in the text); his mentor, William Tooke (T in the text); and the master of Jesus College, Cambridge, the Reverent Doctor Beadon (B in the text). In Volume 2 it is between Horne Tooke and Sir Francis Burdett, baronet (F in the text). As we might expect, the discussion format is not particularly conducive to the presentation of Horne Tooke’s linguistic argumentation, but given the fact that the two types of language proposed by the literati and the classically educated were “refined” and “vulgar” language, it is certainly appropriate for presenting the arguments for and against such a sociopolitical division of language. If language had become politicised, so too had the study of language. This becomes crystal clear at the very beginning of Volume 2, which I quote at length here:

F.— But your dialogue and your politics, and your bitter Notes—

H.—Cantantes, my dear Burdett, minus via lsdit.

F.—Cantantes, if you please; but bawling out the Rights of Man, they say, is not singing.

H.—To the ears of man, what music sweeter than the Rights of man?

F.—Yes. Such music as the whistling of a wind before a tempest. You very well know what these gentlemen think of it. You cannot have forgotten.

“Sir, Whenever I hear of the word rights, I have learned to consider it as preparatory to some desolating doctrine. It seems to me, to be productive of some wide spreading ruin, of some wasting desolation.” —Canning’s speech.

And do you not remember the enthusiasm with which these sentiments were applauded by the House, and the splendid rewards which immediately followed this declaration? For no other earthly merit in the speaker that ffidipus himself could have discovered.

H.—It is never to be forgotten. Pity their ignorance.

F.—Punish their wickedness.

H.—We shall never, I believe, differ much in our actions, wishes or opinions.

I too say with you—Punish the wickedness of those mercenaries who utter such atrocities: and do you, with me, pity the ignorance and folly of those regular governments who reward them: and who do not see that a claim of RIGHTS by their people, so far from treason or sedition, is the strongest avowal they can make of their of their subjection: and that nothing can more evidently shew the natural disposition of mankind to rational obedience, than their invariable use of this word RIGHT, and their perpetual application of it to all which they desire, and to every thing which they deem excellent.

F. — I see the wickedness of it more plainly than the folly; the consequence staring one in the face: for, certainly, if men can claim no RIGHTS, they cannot justly complain of any wrongs. (1829/40: 301-302)

The section is a preface to Horne Tooke’s explanation of the meaning of the lexeme right, and it is placed very squarely into the acrimonious debate on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and the repression of civil liberties in Britain following the Treason Act of 1795 and the two Habeas Corpus Suspension Acts in 1795 and 1798. Horne Tooke has Burdett, who had unsuccessfully presented several petitions for universal male suffrage to parliament, quote part of a parliamentary speech by George Canning. The procedure here is to focus on Canning’s deliberate interpretation of rights as something connected to sedition and revolution and then to present an etymological interpretation of what Horne Tooke assumes to be the basic meaning of the word.

My own interpretation of the Diversions is that it was Horne Tooke’s intention to challenge the theory of a dichotomy between a “refined” and a “vulgar” language when used, as it was, to justify the rigid class structure of society and the misappropriation by the minority class—the classically educated, the literati, the gentry and the aristocracy—of the right to participate in the democratic running of the country. The challenge was sociopolitical and directed at the ruling class, but it was fuelled by the quasi-linguistic underpinnings of this misappropriation. In looking at the Diversions of Purley, therefore, we are not confronted with a new theory of language, only with the dismantling of an old theory. Horne Tooke’s challenge was directed at the discourse that was emerging from the legitimate language myth, Looked at from this point of view, the criticism of the Diversions made in the 1970s to the effect that it prevented the development of a new, unpoliticised approach to language was made from within a late modern archive in which politics and linguistics are seen as incompatible areas of study.[3] Even though the Diversions was studied with great interest for at least the first 40 years of the nineteenth century, it is not difficult to argue that this was precisely because of its import

during a critical period of political repression, the denial of civil rights to a majority of the population and great personal suffering as a consequence of the immense social changes caused by the age of industrialisation.

But how did Horne Tooke go about mounting this challenge to the misappropriation of language by the ruling classes? There were two major principles put forward by the proponents of “refined” or polite language, which Horne Tooke, from his knowledge of philosophy, in particular the philosophy of John Locke, and his study of Anglo-Saxon, was able to dismantle. The process of dismantling those principles, however, represented neither a philosophical nor a linguistic approach to the problem. The major claim made by believers in a “refined” language was that the legitimate language, English, was the equal of the classical languages Latin and Greek, which were thought to have achieved a high degree of perfection. They were thought to have reached a level of abstraction, both in terms of the lexicon and the syntax, which allowed them to be used in the expression of abstract universal values. Such values were thought to be timeless and subject to the laws of propositional logic, that is, to be beyond human beings in a world of sublime objectivity. If a language provides the means of expressing those values, then it, too, has reached a point of sublime objectivity. As a corollary of this, those who were able to manipulate the “legitimate” language were thought to have achieved the means of controlling not only the language but also the sociopolitical and religious affairs of the state in which that language was spoken and, in particular, written. To acquire that ability, intensive exposure to classical Latin and Greek and their literatures was considered absolutely essential.

The first major principle that Horne Tooke challenged was the claim that the meaning of abstract terms could be understood only by those who had had such a classical education. Since they were terms of universal value, they could not be applied to the here-and-now situation of late-eighteenth-century Britain, and the only way to understand them was to study Greek and Latin literature intensively. Obviously, if this claim is granted, such abstract terms as “rights,” “constitution,” “sovereignty,” and so on are open to any arbitrary interpretation as long as the interpretation given satisfies the needs of the classically educated ruling class. Horne Tooke, like most of his radical colleagues, saw the danger of allowing this interpretation of universality to hold. The second major principle challenged by Horne Tooke was the assumption made by the “educated classes” that particles such as prepositions, conjunctions and articles had meaning only when used in the construction of abstract propositions; that is, that they were entirely functional and could be manipulated by those who knew how to use them. Once again, this opens up the field entirely to those who had the experience of using them, and those who did not use them were said to have no notion of objective universal ideas.

Horne Tooke developed his own theory of language from book 3 of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which Locke maintains that words represent ideas in the mind and that human language is a means to convey these ideas as efficiently as one can. Horne Tooke makes the assumption that, if this is the case, then to communicate efficiently and swiftly, human beings “abbreviate” words to such an extent that those words can be used as relations between other words, and he reduces the classes of words to two, verbs and nouns, the more significant being verbs.[4] More important, however, he assumes, as does Locke, that the ideas entertained by the individual are bound to the moment of speaking; hence there can be no universal truths such as those insisted on by eighteenth-century language theorists. To prove his point, he uses his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Greek to show how both the particles and the “universal” terms have evolved etymologically from verbs and nouns.

Although some of his explanations are entirely plausible, others turn out to be demonstrably wrong or at least highly speculative. Nevertheless, the simple fact that he took many of those words that were assumed to be entirely abstract particles back to Anglo-Saxon nouns and verbs appeared plausible to his readers. As a result, together with his political position, which is always latently present in the Diversions, he must have convinced many of his readers not only of the correctness of his linguistic analyses but also, and more important, of the hollowness of the distinction between “refined” and “vulgar”. It is here that Horne Tooke has a point, whatever the plausibility of his etymological derivations may be.

In the following section I consider why it was so important to try to break down this bogus distinction, why the attempt to do so did not succeed, and why the concern with language in nineteenth-century Britain was focused so strongly on English to the detriment of the study of human language in general. I refute the claim made by Aarsleff, Culler and Land that ЕПЕА nTEPOENTA, or the Diversions of Purley was the reason for this delay in the reception of Continental ideas about language, and I do so on the grounds that such an opinion neglects the interplay between language and sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors and fails to see the significance of discourses on language driven by sets of beliefs articulated by language myths. I shall thus turn my attention to some of the most significant events of the period and sketch out the interplay between them and the legitimate language myth.

  • [1] A “rotten” or “decayed” borough was a constituency numbering very few voters that had earlier beena sizeable town but had since shrunk considerably in terms of population and significance. Rotten boroughswere under the patronage of influential members of the aristocracy and were used to influence those who wereelected to Parliament upon payment of the required sum of money. Old Sarum was an extreme case in that ithad just three houses by the end of the eighteenth century but still had the right to send two MPs to Westminster.In the case of John Horne Tooke, one can only assume that the patron for one of the two seats was a Radical.
  • [2] Although Wilkes won the parliamentary election for the county of Middlesex in the general electionof 1768, he faced charges for owing debts, producing pornography and duelling. Before George III and hisprime minister could decide whether to allow Wilkes to take his seat or to deny his right to election and to makehim stand trial, Wilkes pre-empted the decision by giving himself up for trial to clear his name. As a result,people rioted in London, and troops were called out; six people were killed. Wilkes became a hero and a martyrto the cause of liberty. Further details may be found in Kent ([1899] 1971).
  • [3] Unless, of course, the researcher focuses on the study of discourse, which is the major thrust of thepresent book.
  • [4] In doing this, Horne Tooke sometimes appears to carry out a primitive kind of grammaticalisationanalysis. The concept of “grammaticalisation” is dealt with in Hopper and Traugott 1993. Briefly, the theorymaintains that grammatical forms are derived historically from more concrete lexemes. For example, the “begoing to” future in English is ultimately derived from the cognitive concept of movement, the movement beingabstract in the direction of future time.
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