Sheridan in the schoolroom

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Sheridan in the schoolroom*

Lynda Mugglestone

“I let other folks talk. I’ve laid by now, and gev up to the young uns. Ask them as have been to school at Tarley; they’ve learnt pernouncing; that’s come up since my day.”

George Eliot, Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861, p. 90)
Eliot’s mention of a changing emphasis on the arts of speech in early nineteenth-century England would have profoundly gratified the actor and elocutionist Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788). He had, after all, spent some thirty years of the previous century campaigning for such a shift in educational priorities as well as in attention to pronunciation in general. In lecture tours throughout the country, in private lessons to figures such as James Boswell, John Kemble, or Alexander Wedderburn, and in over fifteen published works, Sheridan had continually stressed the need for reform. ‘The study of our own language, has never been made part of the education of our youth’, he wrote in 1762, censuring in particular the neglect of the spoken word (Sheridan, 1762, p. ix). While written language seemed to be increasingly uniform, speech in contrast was ‘not regularly taught, but left to chance, imitation, and early habit’. As with Mr Macey’s evident problems in ‘pernouncing’ in Silas Marner, the consquences of this were clear. In common with all other areas in which ‘unsettled principles’ prevailed, spoken English was, Sheridan argued, ‘liable to innumerable irregularities and defects’ (Sheridan, 1762, p. 56). ‘Blemishes’ in the realization of the spoken word and an ‘erroneous manner’ in delivery were commonplace. Indeed ‘an utter inattention to the living language, as delivered to the ear by the organs of speech’ characterised educational approaches to accent (Sheridan, 1780, p. 2). As he pointedly observed, while textbooks punctiliously set out the orthographical proprieties of English, the spoken word was instead cursorily dismissed. His own work would be different. Whether in his Elements of English (1786), designed for the youngest pupils, or in his compendious General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), Sheridan would systematically endeavour to reverse this habitual neglect.1

Sheridan’s reformist agenda in terms of language is of course in a number of ways entirely typical of the age in which he lived. Jonathan Swift, Sheridan’s godfather, had, for instance, early issued public calls for a language academy whereby linguistic control might be instituted, not least in terms of imposing national standards of use. Sheridan’s own ‘design ... to correct, ascertain, and fix the English language’ in his British Education (Sheridan, 1756, p. vi) was in this sense conspicuously echoed his godfather’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue of 1712. Swift’s words ‘always passed with me for Oracles’, Sheridan later admitted, and Swift’s strictures in terms of pronunciation were evidently no exception. Already isolating what seemed to be a well-established educational deficit when it came to the ‘proper’ inculcation of the spoken word (Sheridan, 1759, p. 19), Swift had, for example, been notably critical of the education which Sheridan himself had received – and not least in terms of its bias towards the written language alone. ‘Do they teach you how to speak?’, Swift had demanded. On hearing Sheridan’s negative response, his verdict was clear: ‘They teach you Nothing’, he declared with an emphasis which, as Sheridan described, ‘particularly sunk deep into my Mind’ (Sheridan, 1759, p. 19).

Sheridan’s conspicuous concerns with vocal propriety can in part be seen to stem from conversations of this kind,2 though in other ways his works clearly reveal a far wider participation in the metalanguage of eighteenth-century prescriptivism. It is the latter which is evident, for instance, in Sheridan’s iterated injunctions about the need for rules (‘it is necessary that the pronunciation should be formed upon known and invariable rules, and that the customary speech should be conformable to those rules’ (Sheridan, 1756, p. 244)), just as it is in his comments about the desirability of fixed norms. A ‘Perpetual Standard of Pronunciation’ hence stands prominently on the title page of Sheridan’s 1761 Dissertation as one of his stated aims. The normative zeal which informed Johnson’s original ‘idea of an English dictionary’ in 1747 or which led Robert Lowth in his Grammar to promulgate binary images by which one might be ‘able to judge of every phrase and form of construction whether it be right or not’ (Lowth, 1762, p. x) can likewise find precise correlates in Sheridan’s own writing. Nevertheless, Sheridan’s ideals were to be significantly different in their full implications, partly because of their intransigent focus on the arts of speech alone, but more particularly perhaps because of the wide-ranging role which Sheridan envisaged for education as a means of instituting the changes he desired to see.

As Sheridan repeatedly stressed, his interest in linguistic reform was not merely ‘speculative’ or theoretical. Instead it was the ‘practical’ which most interested him – the pragmatic means by which language may be reformed and changed throughout the mass of the people. Merely opining from on high on newly composed linguistic desiderata (or their converse) would, he realised, have little effect. As Johnson had argued in the preface to his own dictionary, ‘academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse invaders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been in vain’ (Johnson, 1755, C2r). Sheridan agreed. Even if founded upon ‘the rightest principles’, the members of any such academy ‘would find it difficult to get their self-raised authority ... acknowledged by a stubborn free people, ever jealous of their rights, and naturally inclined to withstand all usurpations’ (Sheridan, 1756, p. 369). Sheridan instead placed heightened importance on the image of reform from within, selecting education as the agent by which necessary change might be instituted and diffused. It was by ‘common suffrage’ – a shared emphasis on speech from the earliest days of education together with a re-oriented model by which accent might be acquired per se – which to Sheridan’s mind might best ensure a common voice for the nation (Sheridan, 1756, p. 371).

In place of the academy suggested by Swift, or the individual subscription to normative dictate involved in the consolidation of the dictionary as popular reference model, it was by means of a new ‘art of speaking, upon a practicable plan’ and imparted in a systematic way that, as Sheridan argued, ‘the body of the people’ might henceforth become the guardians of their own language (Sheridan, 1756, p. 245). ‘I shall shew how, and by what means, it may be in the power of every one to acquire a right manner, by proper pains and practice’, he duly proclaimed (Sheridan, 1762, pp. 34–35). ‘Method’ in this sense becomes a central part of his intended implementation of reform. As he had specified already in 1761, for example, the first essential step in the attempted standardisation of the spoken voice was ‘that of opening a method, whereby all the children of these realms, whether male or female, may be instructed from the first rudiments, in a grammatical knowledge of the English tongue, and the art of reading and speaking it with propriety and grace’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 343). While theory – especially ‘a just theory of articulate sounds’ – was clearly not irrelevant, it was the ‘method for teaching justness of utterance’ which mattered most, especially when children were young.

Existing practice in this respect was conspicuously awry, Sheridan averred, whether with reference to the early acquisition of speech, or the subsequent neglect of such issues once a child had entered school. In the culture of neglect which Sheridan sought to remedy, parents too were judged culpable. After all, they wantonly encouraged their children’s first attempts at speech, even when this involved evidently imperfect articulation. ‘This method of permitting children to attempt all words alike, before they can pronounce the letters contained in them’ was problematic, Sheridan warned, since ‘bad habits are often contracted, which are not easily changed’ (Sheridan, 1786, p. 5). And such weaknesses were compounded by the absence of any corrective method once formal education began. Sheridan’s prescriptive crusade here forcefully embraced the inadequacies of elementary instruction. As he stressed, those who taught the fundamentals of learning were often strikingly ill-qualified for a task which was of such critical importance. ‘This charge is generally entrusted to old women’, Sheridan berated in his 1762 lectures (Sheridan, 1786, p. 58), targeting the dame schools which, as he further specified, were generally presided over by ‘miserable drudges [who] profess only to teach the written alphabet, and to spell and put syllables together properly as they are written’. Language in its spoken manifestations was beyond their attempted remit. Yet even where masters were employed to instil the fundamentals of learning, the same problems could persist. These too, as Sheridan pointed out, were often ‘skilled in letters, but not in sounds’ (Sheridan, 1775, p. 7). In terms of the metaphors of sickness which Sheridan prominently adopts, the majority of teachers – without a changed education of their own – were unable to effect a cure for ‘a vitious articulation, caught perhaps from a nurse, or favourite servant’. And the negative consequences were undeniable from Sheridan’s point of view. Infelicities of speech ‘often infect a man’s discourse through life’, Sheridan noted (Sheridan, 1762, p. 58). Teachers and pupils alike, it seemed, were in need of a new set of prescriptions by which education might standardize one form of accent alone and in turn provide a remedy for the ills which current usage seemed to make all too manifest.

‘Standard English is the dialect of education’, as Peter Trudgill was later to write, examining the consequences of a pedagogic emphasis on one language variety to the exclusion of others in the teaching of English (Trudgill, p. 57). In Sheridan’s eighteenth-century visions, however, it was the role of education in securing a national uniformity of accent which remained his central preoccupation. ‘It must be obvious’, he wrote, ‘that in order to spread abroad the English language as a living tongue, and to facilitate the attainment of its speech, it is necessary in the first place that a standard of pronunciation should be established, and a method for acquiring a just one be laid open’ (Sheridan, 1780, p. 4). Existing variabilities, not least in terms of the existence of a range of ‘corrupt’ dialects, merely confirmed a system ripe for reform (Sheridan, 1775, p. 45). Rather than suggesting the cohesive identity of a range of local communities, regional variation in this sense was seen as exemplifying the regrettable consequences of the essentially haphazard mode in which facility in spoken discourse was acquired, ‘depending entirely upon the common mode of utterance in the several places of [children’s] birth and education’ (Sheridan, 1786, p. v). Such differences, he argued, were essentially negative in their operation, whether with reference to popular language attitudes or in the divergent realizations which the written word might thereby receive. Surely it was paradoxical for the uniformity of written texts to fragment once these same texts were read aloud? The fact that ‘the same individual books ... are pronounced in a quite different manner by the natives of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Yorkshire, and all the several counties of England’ served for Sheridan to confirm the fallibilities of existing educational practice (Sheridan, 1786, pp. v–vi). Against a social norm of enunciation which he located in the ‘best’ speakers of the court, the absence of any remedial attention to accent while children were at school hence underscored the image of neglect. ‘It is customary ... to ridicule provincials, for errours and defects in pronunciation’, as Sheridan had proclaimed in his Course of Lectures (Sheridan, 1762, p. 80). Variation in this context was by no means neutral. Instead it came replete with a set of social meanings, many of which had explicitly been fostered in the works on language which dominated the later eighteenth century.3

A central tenet of Sheridan’s work was thus to rest on the premise that, by careful instruction in stated articulatory norms, a uniform (and non-localised) pronunciation for each and every word might be secured, just as, by means of instruction in the written language, children all over the country acquired competence in the increasingly invariant norms of spelling. Phonetic transcription here becomes central to his own suggested refinements of method. ‘This would be making a noble use of the art of printing’, he proclaimed (Sheridan, 1761, p. 372). While the habitual forms of the written word often gave little indication of the modes of pronunciation to be deployed, the use of transcription was conversely envisaged as able to provide an unambiguous means of instruction in the ‘proper’ relationship of sound and symbol. This is, in itself, a central part of the reforms which Sheridan instituted in the English dictionary. While Johnson had largely abdicated such responsibilities, declaring that ‘to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride’ (and hence merely marking the position of main stress in the words he chose to include within his Dictionary), Sheridan instead developed a complex system of numerical diacritics combined with the respelling of each entry-word. He thereby offers an unprecedented level of detail on the nature of the sounds which, to his mind, should best be used. The fact that Sheridan’s General Dictionary (1780) was constructed as a fundamental component within his intended remodelling of elementary education was moreover by no means irrelevant in the changed methodology which he sought to employ. Already in 1761 he had conceived of the dictionary as a valuable educational tool since reference works of this kind ‘must soon be adopted into use by all schools professing to teach English’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 392). The use of transcriptions was therefore integral to the wider agendas which he also outlined. As he declared, ‘The object of it is, to fix such a standard by means of visible marks, that it may be in the power of every one, to acquire an accurate manner of uttering every word in the English language’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 385).

With reference to Sheridan’s ambitions for the standardization of accent, the General Dictionary as a tool for both general and private instruction was hence designed to transcend the difficulties of access which his specified social model of pronunciation clearly involved. As the ‘Advertisement’ for the Elements of English indicated, for example, ‘the use of Mr. SHERIDAN’s Pronouncing English Dictionary will be essentially necessary to all during their progress towards the art of reading with propriety’ (Sheridan, 1786, n.p.). Discounts were available for bulk purchase for the use of schools, with a ten shilling reduction for every three copies bought. As thus conceived, the Dictionary would enable the dissemination of the usage of the court (the foundation, Sheridan argued, of ‘the most approved custom of pronouncing’) for all who used it. Still more to the point was Sheridan’s thesis that his promulgated standard would by extension necessarily displace all other modes of speech, not least since these were often perceived, as Sheridan further notes, to ‘have some degree of disgrace annexed to them’ (Sheridan, 1762, p. 60). Popular value-judgments of this order seemed to confirm the salience of Sheridan’s educational agenda. Since Sheridan’s selected model of speech could be acquired ‘only by conversing with people in polite life’ (Sheridan, 1762, p. 60), access to this model in the second half of the eighteenth century was necessarily restricted. Education – and the deployment of the dictionary within Sheridan’s revised educational curriculum – promised a different solution. This, Sheridan declared, was ‘the first step necessary to the accomplishment of these points’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 343).

Such precepts underpin the real significance of the often neglected Elements since it is here in which the various strands of Sheridan’s earlier work come into an intentionally practical synthesis as he attempts to put his own method into practice for the youngest children, offering a carefully graduated system by which the spoken language might be taught ‘in such a way, that the first and noblest part of language, Orthoepy, or right pronunciation, may be resorted to its due rank’ (Sheridan, 1786, p. vi). In Sheridan’s egalitarian visions, education on the model set out in the Elements would end the stigmatisation by which, as he had earlier specified, certain accents acted as a ‘sure mark’ of the ‘provincial, rustic, pedantic, or mechanic’ (Sheridan, 1762, p. 60). Instead his specified reference model would be open to all. As he had repeatedly stressed, education should rightly equip children with a ‘just pronunciation’ and a ‘good articulation’ (the latter defined as ‘giving every letter in a syllable, its due proportion of sound, according to the most approved custom of pronouncing it’ (Sheridan, 1762, p. 54)). It should moreover provide detailed instruction in the formation of each and every English sound, capitalising at the level of primary instruction on a period ‘before the pliant organs have taken their bent’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 371). Through a process of practical phonetics for all, it was this period alone which would enable the ‘true pronunciation’ to be acquired with greatest ease.

In consequence, and as befits its status as a deliberately innovatory textbook, the Elements thus offers an equally deliberate subversion of expected methods of instruction at this level, whether in terms of the conventional ordering of the alphabet or in the stress which Sheridan placed upon articulatory combinations in minimal pairs rather than the ‘correct’ structuring of syllables in written terms. Sheridan’s reformulated alphabet for children learning to read is, for example, founded upon principles of phonetic classification, with children learning the articulation of the labials first ([p], [b], [m], etc) since these are ‘the first sounds uttered by children in all parts of the globe’(Sheridan, 1786, p. 5). Only once labials have been mastered is the child to proceed to ‘Dentals, or Sounds Formed near the Teeth’, a category which, Sheridan avers, partakes in a similar ‘natural order’ (‘from the tongue’s being constantly exercised about the gums, to alleviate the pain while they are cutting their teeth’). Instruction in the formation and use of the labio-dentals and ‘palatines’ follows (1786, p. 3) in an order which displaces the articulatory arbitrariness evident in the conventional alphabet. The customary names for individual letters are likewise abandoned in the process of education thus outlined. No longer is to be designated bee or as aitch but instead they are to be taught as eb and ha on the principle that ‘when all the consonants are pronounced with a vowel before them, the exact position of the organs in forming those consonants is made manifest, and children may be taught mechanically to produce the sounds of those which they do not readily catch by the ear’ (Sheridan, 1786, p. 4).

Instruction in the Elements thence proceeds on the principle of minimal pairs with lessons being based on ‘Monosyllables, ending in one Consonant’ – bad, had, lad, mad, fad – or, later in the text, by lessons on pronouncing ‘Words accented on the last Syllable’ (such as along or amaze). Transcriptions offer phonetic disambiguation where necessary, detailed the different realization subsumed within the grapheme , for examples, or discriminating between [Λ] and [] in words such as cut and bull. As the latter suggests, Sheridan’s educational priorities do indeed, precisely as he had intended, specify the inculcation of national norms – [Λ] and not the regional [] in words such as but is to be the preserve of the educated pronunciation which the Elements attempts to impose. Similarly, Sheridan carefully specifies the range of words in which [l] is silent in ‘good’ usage and those in which, say, the short sound of o properly appears. Words such as tongue, work, folk and yolk are, for instance, all painstakingly detailed in terms of their varying realizations, deliberately exposing the illusion of shared identity suggested by their uniform spelling with (Sheridan, 1786, pp. 26–27).

A set of other more overtly prescriptive norms, as expected, also intervenes in Sheridan’s recommended modes of instruction. Seizing the opportunities which education conceivably presented for control, he clearly also attempted to implement a kind of rearguard action against a variety of linguistic changes which were already becoming established in the later eighteenth century. Here, for example, can be included his strictures on the articulation to be adopted for words such fir, fern, and fur. Now merged in 3:] in a process which has its origins in the seventeenth century, Sheridan in contrast chose to advocate a pattern of consistent discrimination. ‘Masters cannot be too careful in making their pupils give the right sounds to words of this structure’, he advised. Current usage here was often reprehensible. ‘A very improper pronunciation has of late gained ground’, Sheridan argued, attributing the change to the provincialities of David Garrick and his influence on the stage. Garrick’s Staffordshire origins (identical to those of Johnson) were held publically accountable for the ways in which he habitually ‘gave the sound of first u to all words alike’ for forms such as gird and birth, earth and interred (Sheridan, 1786, pp. 28–29). Intentionally restoring the favoured harmonies of the past, pupils were instead to be educated in the ‘proper’ distinction of such sounds.

Sheridan’s interventionist stance on language is evident too in his comments on the status of [r]. Another contentious area of usage, it was clear from other contemporary accounts of language in use that [r] in final and post-vocalic positions (as in car and cart) was in the process of vocalization. Yet this too attracted widespread prescriptive censure, not least perhaps since it involved the loss of a sound which continued intact in the written representation of words. The apparent lack of logic in such a change ensured popular antipathies and [r]-less pronunciations of this kind were frequently to be deemed the preserve of the ‘Cockney’ and the ‘vulgar’ over the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the strenuous (albeit futile) attempt to forestall their increasing diffusion (see Mugglestone, pp. 86–94). Sheridan’s rules for pronouncing r, however, adhere to the accepted proprieties of the past, suggesting affinities with the ‘dog’s letter, which hurreth in the throat’ as described by Ben Jonson in his Grammar of 1640 rather than with the reality of the situation of almost 150 years later. ‘Er is formed by a vibrating motion of the tip of the tongue between the upper and lower jaw’, Sheridan stressed (1786, p. 67). Education here seemed a means to impede potentially regrettable change, particularly given Sheridan’s faith in the efficacy of the model of ‘suffrage’ which he advocated. If education could indeed impose a norm, resistance to on-going change might henceforth be located in the ‘body of the people’ – and might in turn act as a real brake upon the phonetic drift which time so often attested. This clearly underpinned, for instance, Sheridan’s formal rejection of realizations with a long and retracted [:] rather than the short [æ] for words such as fast. Only the latter is taught in the Elements, Sheridan is here taking a firm line against a change in progress of which he disapproved. Education thus became the linchpin for Sheridan’s visions of practical standardization. As he had early stressed in his Dissertation of 1761, ‘the rising generation, preinstructed in the true genius of our tongue and the rules by which it ought to be governed, will oppose any changes in individuals, to introduce changes not made in conformity with those rules’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 290). The Elements in this respect can be seen as the culmination of an essentially codificatory thesis, applying in practice what Sheridan had outlined in theory over twenty years earlier. Instruction in the combinatory possibilities of each and every sound would, in Sheridan’s ideal world, ultimately serve to encode a shared norm for the nation, irrespective of the facts of social and regional location. As detailed in the Elements moreover, it was a norm which Sheridan hoped might perhaps endure, a means of stabilizing variation and curbing the wanton propensities of change.

Sheridan’s ambitions for a comprehensive education in the proprieties of the spoken word clearly remained evocative, both during and after his own lifetime. Even if the process of linguistic change continued unabated (such that we may now – against Sheridan’s wishes articulate words such as fir and fern with a fully merged [3:], or words such as car and cart without [r], it is nevertheless undeniable that the linguistic and educational model which his works provided did indeed find adherents. Samuel Whyte established a seminary in Dublin (even before the publication of the Elements) with Sheridan’s Course of Lectures as required reading. Sheridan’s theories featured prominently on the syllabus and were the basis of a subject involving practical instruction for the students in Whyte’s charge. Whyte’s role as a convert to Sheridan’s principles was, however, still more in evidence in his Introductory Essay on the Art of Reading of 1800. ‘The principles of elocution, and the rules of English Grammar, cannot be too soon inculcated’, Whyte affirmed; ‘Children ought to be trained in them, from their very first rudiments, when the pliant organs are easily formed to the pronunciation of any sounds; and before prejudice and evil habits have taken hold’ (Whyte, pp. 4–5).

John Poole in the early nineteenth century likewise provides confirmation of the continued practical implementation of Sheridan’s ideas. Describing his own system of education as applied in Enmore in Somerset, Poole’s The Village School Improved places particular emphasis on the inculcation of appropriate articulatory standards in children by means of reformed methods in the art of reading. Just as Sheridan had specified, this comprises far more than an education in the written word alone. As Poole notes, ‘even a coarse or provincial way of pronouncing a word, though sanctioned by the general practice of the district, is immediately noticed by the teacher; and exposes the child, who uses it, as much to the correction of those below him, and consequently to the loss of his place, as any other impropriety in reading would do’ (Poole, p. 29). Dialect is placed in strictly normative parameters. Designated as ‘broad’ and ‘provincial’, it is intentionally to be eradicated by the superior ‘propriety’ of the non-localised norms which it is the true duty of education to impart. As Poole admits, while the consequences of this emphasis may be somewhat negative at first (‘the more remote the dialect of his country is from the propriety of the language, the greater is the embarrassment experienced by [the child] when he begins to be instructed according to the new and improved system’), it is the long-term view which matters most. ‘Permanent advantages are sure to follow’, he avers (Poole, p. 30). ‘An intelligent, discriminating manner of reading, and a purity of pronunciation, which are seldom, if ever, attained under the old system’ will serve as enduring advantages for speakers who successfully shed the regional markings with which they may initially enter the school.

While a range of other writers evidently came to share Sheridan’s educational beliefs, as in Thomas Martin’s enthusiastic commendations of 1824 (‘His analysis of the principles of speech [and] his instructions to careless teachers ... deserve all the praise that words can bestow’ (Martin, p. 113)) or the practical methodologies assumed in Miss Wilmshurst’s School in Maldon (in which children were regularly required to parse the standard sounds of words),4 the most far-reaching manifestations of the kind of reconfigured remit outlined by Sheridan are perhaps to be found in the reports of the early inspectors of education as England gradually moved towards a national system of schooling. ‘Attempts are made, with considerable success, to combat the peculiarities of the Lancashire pronunciation’, wrote T. W. Marshall as he evaluated one particular school in St. Albans in 1849. Comments on schools in Preston and Nottingham reveal a similar bias: ‘I was struck by the absence of provincial accent, particularly in the monitors’; ‘There is a remarkable absence of provincial accent in the elder girls’. Marshall was by no means alone in such preoccupations, and the Parliamentary Papers of these years (in which such reports were filed) reveal a plentiful supply of assessments which are made in a similar vein (see Mugglestone, p. 213 ff). Educational desiderata intersected with prevalent attitudes to accent and the image of a norm, stressing the needful dissemination of intentionally non-localised forms of speech. Given the system of payment by results, based in particular on oral performance in exams, the focus on speech as a signifier of ‘educatedness’ was transparent in the emergent education system of the day. Sheridan’s worries about ill-qualified teachers would in particular have been allayed by the new training colleges for teachers in which phonetic instruction formed part of the required syllabus. Likewise, the attentive ear given to the nuances of the spoken voice would have confirmed his own pedagogic stance. As one manual of teaching specified, for example, ‘We advise the teacher, whenever he finds himself located in a particular parish, to observe carefully the prevalent peculiarities’ before beginning to combat them with ‘vigorous’ instruction (Morrison, 1863, p. 127). Even in the twentieth century, the same concerns could, in this sense, continue and the 1921 Newbolt Report on the Teaching of English in England hence reveals a striking consonance with ideals which Sheridan had first promulgated over 150 years earlier. ‘Systematic training in the sounded speech of standard English, to secure correct pronunciation and clear articulation’ was given as the first essential prerequisite in the educational reforms which this too desired to see in operation. Like Sheridan, the authors of the Report shared a belief in the overarching benefits which might thereby be achieved. While existing language practices were deemed to emblematize a divided nation, surely a perfected speech for all would have ‘a unifying tendency’, they argued. Sheridan’s rhetoric had been more eloquent, setting visions of a new and egalitarian harmony against the diversities of the past. ‘As subjects of one king, like sons of one father’, all speakers might henceforth ‘have one common tongue’, he had declared. Indeed, he had continued, ‘all natives of these realms’ might – simply by remedial education in the arts of speech – ‘be restored to their birthright in communage of language, which has been too long fenced in, and made the property of a few’ (Sheridan, 1761, p. 392). For Sheridan and Newbolt alike, social and linguistic harmony were deemed to exist in symbiosis, with the eradication of regional difference being advantageous to all.

The question of course remains as to why Sheridan’s ‘communage of language’ – at least in terms of accent – failed to materialise. Diversity can still mark speakers all over the country while RP – as a fully non-localised norm – is employed by a tiny minority (usually estimated at between 3 and 5 percent of the population). While a set of standard pronunciation features – the use of [h] in stressed position in words such as heavy, the selection of [iŋ] rather than [in] in falling, the vocalisation of [r] in arm or the use of the lengthened and retracted [:] in pass, path (and similar words) – forge non-localised bonds over the nation, Sheridan’s notion of a fully codified spoken discourse is far from the reality of the linguistic situation of today. While dialect levelling is commonplace, this has not necessarily resulted in a subscription to the standardizing norms which writers in the past so earnestly advocated. Indeed, new dialect ‘conurbations’, surrounding major cities, are in the process of formation in ways which in no way serve to confirm the salience of a single voice for all. That this is so should not of course ultimately be surprising. Accent functions in reality as a complex signal of identity in which subscription to national norms may be only part of the story. Peer group pressure, the multi-stranded import of group membership and social networks, the rejection of the overt prestige of ‘standard’ forms in favour of a prestige coded in terms of its covert (but no less significant) values all play their part. Sheridan’s ‘top-down’ model of instruction in the norms of speech will on these grounds inevitably and eluctably fail. A ‘stubborn free people, ever jealous of their rights’ would, as Sheridan recognised (Sheridan, 1756, p. 369), never defer to the diktats of a language academy. The same, however, would likewise be true of all attempts to enforce a national standard of speech through the agency of education. In this respect, the ‘suffrage’ early isolated by Sheridan would here find its own, somewhat different voice, one in which variability and change will inescapably prevail.


1. W. Benzie’s The Dublin Orator (1972) provides a useful biographical account of Sheridan’s career.

2. Sheridan, when young, often spent some two to three hours a day reading to Swift; he had, he records, ‘often received pleasure and improvement from the observations he made’ (Sheridan, 1784, p. 386). Given Swift’s abiding concerns with language and correcteness, it is reasonable to assume that the spoken language was one of the subjects covered by such ‘improvement’.

3. For a full discussion of changing attitudes over the eighteenth and nineteenth century with reference to accent, see L. Mugglestone (2003).

4. See The First Part of the Progressive Parsing Lessons: or, an introduction to Murray’s Grammar [by Ann Wilmshurst] (Maldon: P. H. Youngman, 1833).

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