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Communicative competence and eighteenth-century English norms of correctness

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Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) is often regarded as having enforced a set of prescriptive rules on the English language. This is a view I have aimed to correct in my recently published book The Bishop’s Grammar. Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (OUP, 2011). In this paper I will focus on the approach I took in trying to do so. Having collected ca. 300 letters as part of Lowth’s private correspondence, I focussed on his communicative competence. Like any speaker and writer of English he was found to vary in his usage − spelling and grammar − depending on such variables as the nature of his relationship with the addressee of his letters, and in doing so he frequently offended (in eighteenth-century terms) against the rules in his own grammar. In reducing linguistic variation − not in fact as optional as sociolinguists tend to view it − Lowth’s grammar, and the increasingly prescriptive grammars coming after him, is simply part of the standardisation process the English language was undergoing at the time.

This talk is part of the Historical Linguistics Research Cluster series.

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