"The Sound of the printed Letter": Orthography, Orthoepy and Dictionaries in Print Culture*

whitney anne trettien

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Early language reference works and, in particular, dictionaries are not passive mirrors reflecting linguistic trends but are themselves media objects, circulating among speakers and writers of a language. Shaped, to some extent, by the material constraints of print, they propagate a mediated view of language, constructing social attitudes even while presenting them as the inevitable progress of civilized communication. In four case studies, this paper explores this process of naturalization, arguing that dictionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by synthesizing speech and writing, attempt to construct a monolithic super-English — a third, typographic "classical tongue" that both conquers Britain's savage past and marches it toward a colonial future.

Beginning from premises established by Peter Ramus and Francis Bacon — two sixteenth-century philosophers whose work epitomizes the shift from manuscript to print culture — John Wilkins constructs one of the earliest universal languages in 1668. The printed characters in his scheme, based on an ideographic system, bypass speech to represent named objects directly. Although it never became the "new Latin" for scholarship, as he hoped, Wilkins' universal language lays the foundation for Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, the cornerstone of England's "metaphysical empire," in Adam Beach's words. By constructing a canon of printed texts and a standardized orthography based on John Locke's linguistics, Johnson's Dictionary frames "civilized" English culture in typography, shaping speakers' relationship with their language according to the standards of print. Shortly after the Dictionary's publication in 1755, the elocutionist movement, lead by Thomas Sheridan and John Walker, more rigorously connects orthography and orthoepy in their pronouncing dictionaries, popular lexicons delimiting rules for a homogenized English pronunciation that, as John Jones envisioned, "sound[s] all Letters according to the printed Word." Circulating as both products and producers of print culture, these four dictionaries establish print as the ingenerate standard for both verbal and visual discourse, a naturalization that continues to influence linguistic scholarship today.

*This work is a final draft of my undergraduate English departmental Honors thesis, completed in May 2007 (Hood College). Today, I disagree with my methods of doing media history; but the subject matter is sufficiently novel to justify putting it online for download. A condensed version of the section on John Wilkins, presented at "English Dictionaries in Global and Historical Context" conference at Queen's College, 3-5 June 2010. Please do not quote without contacting me: whitney (dot) trettien (at) duke (dot) edu.