ENGLISH AT THE ONSET OF
Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
WHEN Betsy Sheridan, sister of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, came to London in 1784, one of her friends—as she later reported to her sister Alicia in Dublin—accused her ‘of having some brogue which [her] Father would by no means allow’. The Sheridans came from Ireland and this was, it seems, still evident in the way Betsy spoke. Her father, Thomas Sheridan, had just published a pronouncing dictionary as part of his project to standardize English pronunciation and Betsy's elocution had already been a matter of concern (and no little parental endeavour).1 Sheridan was, however, by no means alone in his interests in reforming language. In contrast to the ‘babel’ of varieties which, as the previous chapter has explored, was in many ways seen as typical of the seventeenth century, it was the desire for a standard language, in national as well as individual terms, which was to be one of the most prominent issues of the century which followed.
The beginnings of this development can already be found within the variety of discourses which typified the seventeenth century. Chapter 8 has mentioned the Royal Society which had been founded in the early 1660s, and which ‘served as coordinator and clearing house for English scientific endeavours’.2 From its very
1 As part of the elocutionary training given by her father, Betsy was, for example, made to read at
length from Johnson's Rambler, afterwards being subjected to detailed correction of the mistakes she
had made. See Mugglestone (2003a), 147.
2 See A. C. Baugh and T. Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (London: Routledge,