Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade TITLE: The Bishop's Grammar SUBTITLE: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2011
Laura Louise Paterson, Department of English and Drama, Loughborough University
Over nine chapters, Tieken-Boon van Ostade sets out to re-evaluate the position of Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, as the founder of traditional prescriptive grammar in English. She begins by focusing on Aitchison's (1981) evaluation of Lowth's work, rejecting the notion that ''so many of his strictures were based on his own preconceived notions'' of correct English (Aitchison 1981, p. 25; quoted in Tieken-Book van Ostade, 2011, p. 6). As part of her argument, Tieken-Boon van Ostade claims that Lowth was not, in essence, a prescriptivist, but rather suggests that the prescriptive label which has been attached to him is based upon other grammar writers, such as Murray (the American, whose famous grammar was published in 1795), adopting and recasting Lowth’s work in increasingly prescriptive tones. She notes that, far from setting out to correct English usage, Lowth's original motivation for writing the grammar was for his son, and he only published it because Henry Bilson Legge, who was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, requested a copy. Tieken-Boon van Ostade also points out that it was not the author, but the publishers, who saw a gap in the market for a book such as Lowth's, adding subsequently that Lowth sold his copyright.
In the second chapter, the author documents her primary sources for the book, which include Lowth's personal memoires, a corpus of his correspondence, and his will, not to mention different editions of his famous grammar. Tieken-Boon van Ostade uses these texts to present a picture of Lowth's life outside of the grammar, including his career in the church, and his family, highlighting the fact that Lowth had friends in high places, and was chaplain to the king (p. 27). Having established Lowth's social connections, Chapter Three is a detailed and comprehensive history of the grammar, in which Tieken-Boon van Ostade notes that the first edition was anonymous, insofar as Lowth's name did not appear on the cover. Yet, she acknowledges that the text was advertised and talked about as '''Lowth's grammar' from the start'' (p. 60). She then discusses the development and expansion of the grammar into the second edition, which was based in part on the submissions of the readers of the first edition, as Lowth had called for such input in his preface to the original. In the second half of the chapter, Tieken-Boon van Ostade deals with the popularity and distribution of the grammar, and documents the authorised editions, and unauthorised reprints and ''pirated'' versions of the text (p. 72), which spread as far as the US and Europe. She also highlights the impact that Lowth's grammar had, by noting that a number of texts, including ''The Child's Grammar'' (Fenn, 1799), were written specifically as introductions to Lowth's work aimed at children (and perhaps the uneducated).
Chapter Four deals with the structure of the grammar itself, which includes sections on letters, grammar, word classes, and punctuation, and the author proposes some possible sources for Lowth's choice of segments and titles. Tieken-Boon van Ostade also pays special attention to Lowth's footnotes in the syntax section (which is perhaps his most famous contribution to grammar), which are based on a corpus of grammatical errors made by dead authors. She discusses the implications of using Lowth's method as a potential building block for corpus-based work on pages 96-7, and provides further arguments for her defence of Lowth by stating that his correction of negative examples was actually proscriptive (rejecting ‘incorrect’ forms), rather than prescriptive (endorsing particular alternative forms) . She also contrasts Lowth with other grammarians of the time, such as Priestly, and suggests that they were equally, or more, prescriptive than Lowth. To this end, she directly compares Lowth's treatment of weak and strong verbs with other grammar writers (Murray and Ward) and with their equivalents in Present Day English (p. 126). She also takes issue with specific words used in Lowth's grammar, such as ''vulgar'' and ''vicious'' (pp. 111-12) and suggests that, although they are presently shaded with modern meanings, at the time of writing the grammar, the words did not have such negative connotations, and therefore were not necessarily social judgments on usage.
In Chapter Five, following on from establishing Lowth's personal life in Chapter Two, Tieken-Boon van Ostade seeks to reconstruct Lowth's social networks using his personal correspondence. She provides a lot of descriptive detail about her corpus of letters, but notes its limitations. Using address forms as a marker of social relationships, she classifies the letters into groupings of intimacy based on their openings and closings and whether such terms are reciprocated by both parties, coming up with a rank scale from 'relatives' through 'fellow scholars' to 'enemies'. However, the author does not always provide relevant contextual biographical information about Lowth's correspondents, and therefore the social significance of Lowth's relationships is left implicit.
Across Chapters Six and Seven, Tieken-Boon van Ostade analyses Lowth's letters in relation to the content of his grammar, in order to spot inconsistencies and illustrate his awareness and use of different levels of formality and style. For example, she provides a close analysis of the contractions Lowth used - noting that they generally decrease as formality and politeness increase - followed by a detailed section on Lowth's use of variant spellings. Her analysis of Lowth's letters shows that he did not always follow his own teachings, and thus the author again tackles Aitchison's (1981) viewpoint, saying that the idea that Lowth merely prescribed his own preferences ''barely holds water'' (p. 227). This is due, in part, to the fact that Tieken-Boon van Ostade argues that Lowth ''was particularly sensitive to the language of those who were highly placed in society'' (p. 222).
In Chapter Eight, the author contextualises the grammar in terms of the standardisation of English, but notes that Lowth's grammar was published well before more overtly-prescriptive usage guides were common place. In addition, she compares the number of proscriptions Lowth makes to that of other grammar writers, and shows that he is at the bottom of the pile. In her final chapter Tieken-Boon van Ostade restates her assertion that it was Murray's (and others') use of Lowth's grammar which was prescriptive, and not Lowth's original text, before returning once more to Aitchison's comments about how confident Lowth was in his assertions (p. 291). She concludes by arguing that Lowth was not the traditional grammatical prescriptivist that scholars, like Aitchison, portray him to be, and whilst she notes that his work did have an impact on grammar writing in the eighteenth century and beyond, his role has been greatly misunderstood.
This is a key book for any scholar working on grammatical norms of the English language, and/or the codification and standardisation of English. Tieken-Boon van Ostade provides an alternative account to the standard depiction of Robert Lowth as an initiator of prescriptive grammar. However, one criticism is that she treats negative evaluations of Lowth's grammar, and his characterisation as a prescriptivist, as negative evaluations of the person himself. She focuses on Lowth as a man, and as such, does not consider that at least some evaluations of 'Lowth' in the wider literature refer to the grammar itself, and not to the person who wrote it.
On a different point, the limitations of Tieken-Boon van Ostade's primary sources are clear. However, she does note that the letters she uses represent only a small amount of the correspondence that Lowth was engaged in during his lifetime, and as such, the corpus of correspondence cannot tell Lowth's whole story. Nevertheless, one feature of the limited number of letters is that some quotes are used more than once throughout the book, and repetition is not uncommon. In addition, on a graphological note, the quotations from the letter manuscripts could have been standardised to make them accessible to more readers, however, this is a minor quibble and does not affect the overall reading of the book.
Whether one sides with Tieken-Boon van Ostade's depiction of Lowth or not, and whether one believes that he deserves, or indeed even has, the negative reputation that she attributes to him, her arguments are well supported. She notes the limitations of her data, and although there could have been a few more examples from the grammar, she supports her viewpoints well. Her analysis of individual grammatical features in Chapters Six and Seven is especially thorough, and convincing. Although the book is not for the uninitiated, and would therefore probably not be suitable for undergraduates, or non-linguists, it would be of great interest to a range of scholars, from those working on the nuances of eighteenth century grammar, to those looking at modern usage, and more broadly at the codification and standardisation of languages. Tieken-Boon van Ostade presents her argument well throughout the text, and it is clear that she is a stalwart defender of Lowth's name.
Aitchison, Jean. 1981. Language Change: Progress or Decay? (Reprint, 1984; second edition, 1991; third edition, 2001.) Bungay: Richard and Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd.
Fenn, Ellenor. 1799. The Child's Grammar. Dublin: No imprint.
Murray, Lindley. 1795. English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (with an appendix containing Rules and Observations for Promoting Perspicuity in Speaking and Writing). York: Wilson, Spence, and Mawman.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Laura Paterson is about to complete her PhD in the Department of English
and Drama at Loughborough University. Her work centres on epicene pronouns
in written British English, focusing specifically on generic 'he' and
singular 'they'. Her thesis involves examining the interplay between social
factors, such as language prescriptions, and empirical factors, such as how
pronouns are processed in the brain, and analysing what impact (if any)
each type of factor has on epicene production.