English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language

English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language

English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language

English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language

Synopsis

Thomas Spence (1750-1814) was a native of Newcastle upon Tyne who is best known for his political writings, and more particularly for his radical `Plan' for social reform involving common ownership of the land. One hitherto neglected aspect of Spence's Plan was his proposal to extend the benefits of reading and of `correct' pronunciation to the lower classes by means of a phonetic script of his own devising, first set out and used in Spence's Grand Repository of the English Language (1775). The Grand Repository was one of many English pronouncing dictionaries produced in the late eighteenth century to satisfy the growing demands for a clear guide to `correct' pronunciation. It differs from its contemporaries firstly in that it was intended primarily for the lower classes, and secondly in that it is the only eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionary of English to use a truly `phonetic' script in the sense of one sound = one symbol. In this fascinating and unique account, Beal pays particular attention to the actual pronunciations advocated by Spence and his contemporaries with a view to reconstructing what was felt to be `correct' pronunciation in eighteenth-century Britain. With broad appeal to linguists and historians alike, this study highlights the importance of pronouncing dictionaries as a resource for the historical phonologist, and provides a valuable addition to the limited body of knowledge on eighteenth-century pronunciation.

Excerpt

Thomas Spence was born on 21 June 1750 on the Quayside, then one of the poorest areas of Newcastle upon Tyne. His father was a Scot who had settled in Newcastle some eleven years previously, and who had followed the occupations of netmaker and shoemaker, later becoming a hardware dealer. Whatever he earned at these occupations would not have gone far, as there were besides Thomas eighteen other children to support. This places Spence, almost uniquely amongst eighteenth-century orthoepists and grammarians, firmly in the lower classes. Little is known about such formal education as Spence might have received: Ashraf(1983: 12) notes that he 'began his working life at his father's trade of netmaking at the age of ten after some schooling'. We do, however, know from Spence's own account in The Important Trial of Thomas Spence that his father had his own method of educating his sons. 'My father used to make my brothers and me read the Bible to him while working in his business, and at the end of every chapter, encouraged us to give our opinions on what we had just read. By these means I acquired an early habit of reflecting on every occurrence which passed before me, as well as on what I read' (Spence 1803:65; quoted from Waters 1917:65).

Spence's family moved in radical and dissenting circles: they joined the breakaway Presbyterian congregation of the Revd James Murray, a famous preacher at the time, and described by Ashraf: (1983:19) as 'well to the left of Whig tradition . . . an egalitarian democrat'. Later, Spence's father and brother Jeremiah were to join the Glassites, a millenialist Congregationalist group who advocated a return to the communal ownership of property practised by the early church. Bindman (1989:198) describes the Spence family as 'leading members of the Glassite congregation at the Forster Street meeting house'. Whether Thomas Spence continued to adhere to this sect or not, he was undoubtedly influenced by their belief in common ownership of property, and Ashraf (1983: 20) suggests that 'possible Glassite tendencies were reflected in the millennial metaphor of Spensonia' in Spence's later writings.

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