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Review of  English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century

Reviewer: Kathleen Therese O'Connor-Bater
Book Title: English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century
Book Author: Joan C. Beal
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.2388

Discuss this Review
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Date: Mon, 23 Aug 2004 11:44:07 -0400 (EDT)
From: Kathleen Therese O'Connor-Bater
Subject: English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century

AUTHOR: Beal, Joan
TITLE: English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century
SUBTITLE Thomas Spence's 'Grand Repository of the English Language'
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2002 (paperback edition; hardback edition, 1999)

Kathleen Therese O'Connor-Bater, SUNY, College at Old Westbury

Note on symbols:
[aw] represents open-o (mid-back round vowel);
[uh] represents caret (central vowel);
[wh] represents upside-down-w (voiceless bilabial glide)

The intention of this book is to make a strong case for the
contributions of eighteenth century Scottish social reformer Thomas
Spence (1750-1814) to the standardization of English pronunciation.
Contrary to the opinions held by many, there were significant changes
in Late Modern English (LNE) during the 18th Century, and Spence's work
is a key to understanding their nature and development. Best known as
an advocate for land reform and considered a radical in his day, Spence
held a heartfelt belief that success among the common classes could
only be achieved by their approximation of the dominant London
pronunciation system. This belief led him to devise a phonetic script
in which each sound is represented by a symbol. As a result of this
belief, he compiled a comprehensive pronouncing dictionary: the Grand
Repository of the English Language. In her book about this great text,
Joan Beal poses the question: ''how is it that such a radical and
innovative work as the Grand Repository has largely escaped the
attentions of historical phonologists, despite Abercrombie's
identification of Spence as a 'forgotten phonetician' worthy of serious
attention?'' (p. 12)

Joan Beal's book places Thomas Spence's Grand Repository of the English
Language (1775) within the context of the eighteenth century land
reforms throughout Britain. A social activist, Spence made his primary
concern that of inspiring the uneducated urban poor as well as all
provincials to improve their social and economic lot by emulating the
pronunciation of the London elite. Specifically, Spence developed two
'plans': the first called for land proprietary rights for common
people; and the second, to which he devoted his remaining years, sought
to reform the English spelling system so that provincials could learn
to pronounce ''correctly'' by reading lexical items according to a
phonetic code.

In the first chapter, ''Thomas Spence: His Life and Works'', Beal
unearths the eighteenth century value placed on ''correct'' pronunciation
in terms of attitudes. Citing Holmberg (1964), she notes that in the
eighteenth century, the snob value of good pronunciation began to be
recognized. During this time, the rising middle classes in Britain were
loath to betray what came to be called 'vulgar' origins-'vulgar' being
the label placed on the urban poor. During the Industrial Revolution,
those from the provinces who arose in economic status feared being
stigmatized for both 'vulgar' and 'provincial' backgrounds. Thus, the
demand for pronouncing dictionaries increased.

In Chapter 2, ''Eighteenth-Century English: The Cinderella of English
Historical Linguistics'', Beal addresses the problem of the scholarly
neglect of the Late Modern English (LNE) period of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Citing Charles Jones' (1989), who dubbed this
period the ''Cinderella'' of English historical studies, Beal laments
that phonological studies in the period has been relegated to an even
lower level on the importance scale, calling it the ''Cinderella of
eighteenth century English''. She suggests that this neglect may be due
to the widespread irregularities in English pronunciation which tends
to inhibit systematic analyses such as can be done on the Great Vowel
Shift (p. 16); but asserts, that these very irregularities reveal an
interesting complexity which, in fact, provide insights into the
history of English. The chapter continues to survey important works on
the phonologies of the period including those developed by Strang
(1970), McKnight (1928), Schlauch (1959) and Wyld (1927) along with
others who acknowledge that too little significance has been attributed
to LNE pronunciations, and who recognize socio-cultural factors in
sound changes and allowing that the changes may have been gradual thus
facilitating a more interesting study.

Chapter 3, ''Evidence for Eighteenth-Century Pronunciation: The Value of
Pronouncing Dictionaries'' cites the dictionaries of Walker (1791),
Sheridan (1780), and Burn (1786) and frames the question of whether the
various pronouncing dictionaries of the eighteenth century can be
useful tools for the historical phonologist; to this Beal answers
soundly ''yes''. Beal discusses evidence in terms of being ''direct'' or
''indirect''; direct evidence being that which is provided by public
statements about the language made by orthoepists, grammarians and
elocutionists of the day; and indirect evidence being that which is
found in spellings, rhymes, and puns (p. 37). She gives examples using
texts well known in the present day to provide interesting questions,
if not answers. A passage from ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' suggests
that the words ''tongues'' and ''wrongs'' might have contained the same
vowel, since they were expected to rhyme, although the determination of
the vowel in ''correct'' pronunciation as [aw] or [uh] is subject to
discussion. For example:

You spotted snakes with double tongues
Thorny hedge-hogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen.

According to Beal, the irregularities should not pose grave problems
to contemporary analysis, since, she notes, even the Great Vowel Shift
leaves residues of irregular forms which must be discussed
independently of predictable phonological patterns.

Chapters 4, ''Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language'' and 5,
''The Phonology of Eighteenth-Century English: Evidence from Spence's
Grand Repository and Contemporary Pronouncing Dictionaries'' contain the
bulk of Beal's analysis of Spence's work and its significance for
contemporary scholarship. In Chapter 4, Beal offers some reasons for
Spence's system of notation referring to his work as the first
'phonetic' dictionary, meaning that the ''one sound = one spelling''
system of correlations is established. In 4.2, A facsimile of the table
form the Grand Repository, titled ''The New Alphabet'' (Fig. 4.1) is
given together with a discussion of the sound symbol correspondence
with present day received pronunciation (RP). 4.3 suggests that
Spence's ''New Alphabet'' might be characterized more for its value as a
phonemic system than as a system of spelling reform, since his goal is
primarily that of facilitating ''correct'' pronunciation, leading one to
believe that spoken communication was of greater concern to Spence than
was orthography. 4.3 also contains Table 4.1 on which Spence's symbols
are given alongside the pronunciation word list from J. C. Wells's
''Accents of English'' (1982) and the corresponding RP symbols.

Chapter 5 provides a detailed comparison of wordlists found in the
Grand Repository comparing them to equivalent entries found in Walker
(1791), Sheridan (1780), and Burn (1786) (and Johnston (1764) who
substitutes for Sheridan in 5.2 since he does not recognize the fourth
sound of 'a' (/a/) as discussed in that section). Beal chose these
three dictionaries believing that their authors would account for
lexical, geographical, and social diffusion of sound changes in
progress at the time. Walker was a 'self-styled' authority, Burn was a
Scot, and Sheridan is referenced in the Grand Repository. The study in
Chapter 5 examines the data in terms of three criteria: 1)that there is
evidence that the sound changes were still diffusing; 2) that the
variability was 'salient' (in the sense of Labov 1966); 3) the sound
changes would be characteristic of the eighteenth century in that they
represent a shift from the Early Modern English or a contrast from RP.
The analysis is applied to the following changes: lengthening of ME
/a/; splitting of ME /U/ (foot); later shortening of ME /o:/; yod-
dropping; unstressed vowels; weakening and/or loss of word final and
preconsonantal /r/; loss of initial /h/; and the merger of /wh/ [wh]
and /w/.

Chapter 6, the ''Conclusion'', contains a brief overview of the book as
well as some suggestions for further work. The chapter ends with some
closing remarks. In the ''Conclusion'', Beal underscores the need for
this work to be carried on, noting her own regret to have merely
'scratched the surface' in the analysis of the vast linguistic shifts
that took place during this period.

Following the chapters, Appendices 1 through 10 (pp. 187-225) provide
numerous wordlists (Appendix 2 goes from 2a through d; 3 runs from a to
b; 5 runs a to b; 6, a to d and 7, a to b), beginning with some sample
output from the Oxford Concordance Program (OCP), then plowing through
each sound given by Spence (there are 4 varieties of 'Open A', for
example). The lists give the entry from the Grand Repository, then
offer the corresponding entries given by Walker, Johnson, Burn (and
Sheridan where available) as well as a rendition according to RP.

In this erudite work on the Grand Repository of the English Language,
Joan Beal raises the readers' awareness of the importance of Spence's
work to the contemporary analysis of Late Modern English. Aside from
being a rigorous work in historical phonetics, the book provides a
wealth of historical information about the language of the period and
the English speakers who cared deeply about the way they spoke their
language. While each chapter is a solid work able to stand in its own
right, the continuity of the chapters makes for a cohesive corpus. The
argument that Spence's work-- as well as other studies of eighteenth
century English--have not been given adequate attention by historical
linguists and that they should to be, is a convincing one. Beal has
established this both rationally and empirically.

The observations I would offer fall into two categories: the first
regards the question of the intended audience for the book and the
organization of two chapters; the second addresses Beal's criticism of
phonologists' neglect of eighteenth century English.

I note, for example, the absence of a preface or author's statement
addressing the book to an appropriate audience. I think it would be
perfectly acceptable to inform readers, at the beginning, exactly who will benefit from which parts of the book. In general, the book is accessible to the educated layperson; with the exception of Chapter 5, for which the reader is expected to have some knowledge of the phonological processes. In addition to historical linguists, the book will be a valuable resource for those in the theatre as well as others interested in the sounds of English during the eighteenth century which corresponds to the time of the American Revolution. (Some might want to know, for example, how English was pronounced in the Colonies, and how far it had ''diffused'' from the British variants.) To make the work more accessible to an extended readership, abbreviations and linguistic terms, although defined elsewhere, might be explained in a footnote, or defined in a glossary.

Each of the chapters reflects a great deal of research, and is very
comprehensive. I think, however, that the information presented from
beginning to end could be better organized. For example, Chapter 3,
''Evidence for Eighteenth-Century Pronunciation: The Value of
Pronouncing Dictionaries'' jumps into the discussion of whether
pronouncing dictionaries are useful for scholars. It is not until
Chapter 4, ''Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language'', that we
find out which dictionaries specifically are to be compared to the
''Grand Repository''. If the discussion of the specific dictionaries were
presented first, I think it would make for an easier reading of Chapter
3. Next, Chapter 5 is titled: The Phonology of Eighteenth Century
English: Evidence from Spence's Grand Repository and Contemporary
Pronouncing Dictionaries. I find it tasking to topicalize the
information I expect to read in these chapters with such heavily worded
titles. Abridging the chapter titles would enable the reader to identify
the content of the chapters more generally within the context of the
book as a whole, rather than demanding attention to such a narrow
focus more appropriate for journal articles or dissertations.

As far as the second point I want to address, I will first vigorously
agree with Beal's call for more descriptive study of the English of
this period. I fear, however, that a true phonological study will not
be possible without recorded speech samples. It seems to me that the
task of the phonologist is to posit rules which illustrate the
phonological processes involved in the diffusion of speech sounds, not
only within independent lexical specimens, but also to determine the
allophonic distribution of sounds within their phonetic environments.
Dictionaries enable us to document pronunciation conventions and to prescribe standards, but they will not likely give the rule for the distribution, say, of the /t/ as aspirated, unreleased, or occlusive when found in word-initial, word-final, or following a sibilant-- let alone to describe its systematic cross-over to another phoneme, such as is the case with the geminated 't', which, in my dialect, becomes a tapped [r] (nor, as far as I could tell from the samples in Beal's book, does Spence.) In Spence's Grand Repository, most of the attention is given to the correct pronunciation of vowels, with consonants largely ignored. On page 97, for example, we have a listing of Spence's ''New Alphabet'' showing 4 varieties for the 'a', 2 for the 'e', 2 for the 'o', 2 for the 'u', 3 for the 'w'; but only 1 for the 'k', 't', and 'p', all of which might present significant indicators of native versus non-native speakers in contemporary English. Beal does discuss, of course, some of the processes applied to consonants which are analyzed in Chapter 5, but most of these occur at morpheme breaks -- such as to the /t/ /d/ or /s/ before [+ure], as in 'adventure', 'procedure' and 'pleasure', but, more for the purpose of showing vowel lengthening.

Finally, I would like to offer an esthetic suggestion --admittedly
unorthodox for a linguistics review-- to the production department of
the book's publisher. English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century:
Thomas Spence's 'Grand Repository' of the English Language, is not only
an informative cataloging of English the way it was spoken during an
exciting period in British history, but it is also the story of a book,
published in the eighteenth century, which, as the author informs us,
was very important in its time. We also learn form the author's
research that there are only two known copies of the book that survive.
In Beal's book, there are copies of two fragments from the original
text in the book, the first, on the unnumbered page 2 and the second
pasted into page 81. For my part, I would like to see several pages of
photographs of the original, perhaps as an insert, where there might be
additional portions of the original text, or photographs of the museums
in which the copies are housed, as a visual reference. This would not
only provide a pleasant graphic, but would assist the reader not
familiar with the RP in understanding Spence's intention and may even
stimulate further interest in Spence's work.

Abercrombie, C. C. (1965). Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics.
(London: Oxford University Press)

Burn, J. (1786). A Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, (2nd
ed., Glasgow: Alex, Adam for the Author and James Duncan; 1st ed.,

Holmberg, B. (1964). On the concept of standard English and the
history of modern pronunciation. (Lund: Gleerup).

Johnston, W. (1794). Pronouncing and Spelling Dictionary. (London: The

Jones, Charles (1989). A History of English Phonology. (London:

Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York
City. (Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics)

McKnight, G. H. (1928). Modern English in the Making. (New York: Dover

Schlauch, M. (1959) The English Language in Modern Times (since 1400).
(Warsaw: Panstwowe Widawnistwo Naukowe)

Sheridan, T. (1780) A General Dictionary of the English Language.
(London: R & J Dodsley, C. Dilly, and J. Wilkie)

Strang, B. M. H. (1970). A History of English. (London: Methuen)

Walker, J. (1791). A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (London: G. G. J.
and J. Robinson, and T. Cadell)

Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English. (3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press)

Wyld, H. C. (1927). A Short History of English (3rd Edition, London:
Murray; 1st Edition, 1914)
Kathleen Therese O'Connor-Bater is a Romance linguist who has published
in the area of cognitive semantics, and has a paper forthcoming in the
area of sound-sense correspondence. She has also presented several
papers on metaphor and poetics. She revised and updated the Random
House Dictionary of Latin American Spanish-English (2000). She has
taught at Houghton College and Princeton University. In the Fall, 2004,
she will begin a position in Spanish and French at SUNY College at Old