The Root Of English – The Enlightenment

The tendencies established during the Renaissance continued throughout the 18th century – the period of the ‘Enlightenment’. The works of writers like Dr Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon are packed with Latin- and Greek-based words that bear witness to their classical educations. And as Britain became a world power in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a new confidence in the qualities of English. The feeling gained currency that the language had now reached a state of unparalleled elegance and perfection, and that any change could only be for the worse.
There were two important consequences of this new-found confidence. First, the desire to ‘fix’ English – which lay behind the pioneering work of Dr Johnson and others in dictionary-making and the study of English grammar. Dr Johnson’s dictionary, published in 1755, was the first dictionary that seriously attempted a complete coverage of the English vocabulary.
The other result was the formulation of rules of usage – the ‘this-is-right-and-you-are-wrong’ attitude. Several ‘rules’ still peddled today come from this period, with little or no basis in the language as it is or ever has been used. There is the ‘rule’ for instance, that prepositions should not be used to end clauses with. Most of these prejudices were based on attempts to impose Latin grammar upon English. Preposition, for example, means literally ‘placed in front’, hence ‘something placed in front of something’, and so, said the lawgivers, prepositions could not go at the end.
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