The Arguments of Jonathan Swift, a guest post by Cat Seaton

It’s the End of the Term So This Paper is 100% Sassafras
Or, The Arguments of Jonathan Swift:
Or, More Aptly: Jon Swift Claims to Care about English but is Actually Just Asking for Money

Swift is a clever man. So clever, in fact, that in “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” he couches his eventual request for a pension (this, itself, well hidden) in a proposal to correct the English language. Sure, he argues well. He states a grievance (the language is extremely “imperfect,” that it is full of more “daily Corruptions” than improvements, and that those who seek to refine it have only multiplied its “Abuses and Absurdities” [Swift par. 2],) and explains why it is he feels the language is in such a poor state, but it all comes down to one thing: that, wouldn’t his most honorable Lord High Treasurer be so much more successful and well-respected if he were to offer geniuses some sort of reward? And Jon Swift, having proven himself only a most concerned citizen and well-learned man—of course—in this most humble entreaty to the English language, has certainly not implied that he is such a genius, oh no, not at all. And not that the reward must be money, Swift is quick to correct, for “if any such Persons were above Money, (as every great Genius certainly is, with very moderate Conveniences of Life) a Medal, or some Mark of Distinction, would do full as well” (par. 23).

Still, there is enough evidence that, despite his eventual plea for “recognition,” Swift does in fact believe the English language is falling into decay. He often calls back to the golden days of the Latin tongue, which only fell apart through the dissolution “of their Government into a Tyranny” (par. 5) and its frequent exposures to other languages. He implies that, because the “German, Spanish, and Italian, have admitted few or no Changes for some Ages past” (par. 7) they are the superior languages and their examples should be followed. (French is both praised and scorned, for it was “polish[ed] as much as it will bear,” and then “declin[ed] by the natural Inconstancy of [the French] people” [par. 6].) That is, language should remain stagnant. That is, there is “no absolute Necessity why any Language would be perpetually changing” (par. 7).

Really, Swift seems to loathe change. The only things he loathes more than change are poets, plays, and writers of entertainment. Of the three, the brunt of his hatred falls to poets. He contributes the “spoiling of the English Tongue” (par. 10) to these poets, particularly because they engage in “[the] barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses…as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure” (par. 10). (Take a moment to imagine this phrase spoken with a full and classist British mustache abristle and aquiver, as certainly his must have been.) Yes, heaven forbid: in order to fit words into their dreaded and terrible rhyme scheme, they have removed the vowels! This “abuse” results in such fowl and deformed words as “rebuk’t,” and “disturb’d,” and even calls for the pronunciation of those words to change. It is “…so jarring a Sound,” writes Swift, “and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain” (par. 10).

Swift feels the only way to fix the English language would be to “fix on Rules by which…to proceed” (par. 14). These rules include discarding the many “gross Improprieties” used in the practicing of the English language, throwing newer words out of the language, and bringing back words which, though antiquated, deserve restoration “on account of their Energy and Sound” (par. 15). He then promptly proceeds to contradict himself, saying “a Language should not be wholly perfect…it should be perpetually changing” (par. 16), but it seems, only when the changes are agreed upon by the higher ups who set out to fix it in the first place. I believe this contradiction shows he intends to cover all his bases, pleasing the High Lord Treasurer well enough on all accounts, that he might eventually be able to request a sum from him.

In fact, shortly after this, he begins to butter up the Treasurer. He compliments him on his familiarity with the Bible, how great and wonderful a man he is, how he must have a “true and lasting” desire of honor, and how he has “exposed [his] Person to secret Treachery, and open Violence” in order to preserve and increase that desire (par. 20). He continues on in that vein of praise for a good while, and then in short order, moves on to subtle threats that the High Treasurer should be summarily forgotten unless he “take[s] some Care to settle [the English] Language, and put it into a state of Continuance” (par. 20), with this settling of the language, of course, being done by the encouragement of “Genius and Learning” (par. 23). From there, Swift glides easily into his assertion that learned men (geniuses in particular) should be offered a pension, solely because “[t]he smallest Favour given by a Great PRINCE, as a Mark of Esteem, to reward the Endowments of the Mind, never fails to be returned with Praise and Gratitude, and loudly celebrated to the World” (par. 23).

It’s easy to see that Swift used his discontent with the English language as a stepping stone to prove his own “genius” to the High Treasurer, convince him that care to the language was the only thing which would preserve him in posterity, and that the only way to preserve the language was to reward “genius” men, such as himself. Very clever indeed, and certainly not unadmirable. While I do not particularly agree that language should be halted in its ability to change (the effort is nigh on impossible,) I do believe that developing a sound thesis and arguing upon it is a good way to sneakily ask for favors and/or money. And I can understand his intense dislike of poets (I am a poet, and I don’t particularly care for my breed), but I am still on the opposite spectrum (perhaps because I am a poet): I feel that language should be played with. Sure, further down the line it may make the reading of antiquated works (such as this proposal) significantly more difficult, but reckoning them would not prove impossible, as Swift seems to think.

All in all, I disagree with his pronouncement that the English language is declining—rather, I feel it is evolving and blooming into something new, but I don’t disagree that it would be nice for the higher-ups of the world to reward intelligent folk with pensions, awards, or other shiny things. It would, at the very least, be loudly celebrated by me.

Cat Seaton is graduating SOU this year with a degree in Creative Writing. She intends to be a playwright.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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