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English Purist Tendencies in a Comparative Perspective
András Cser
36-40 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


This paper examines the contrast between the purist lexicological tendencies that existed in England and those that existed in the speech communities of smaller European languages, represented here by Hungarian. It is well known that in the case of English, purist tendencies were by and large unsuccessful, but the opposite is true for smaller languages like Hungarian or Czech, as well as some of the major European languages like German. To understand why, two types of purist attitude have to be distinguished, both typologically and historically (strictly in early modern and modern times). The first type is isolated and typically earlier; the second type (typically later) is intimately connected to institutional aspects of the speech community's life, such as the expansion of schooling and universities and academies, the use of standardised textbooks, and the emergence of a literary canon. In the case of English, the first type is represented by Lever or Puttenham. One reason purism remained ineffective in England was that it never actually manifested itself in the second form, but other reasons can be identified as well. The full functionality of the language was never in jeopardy, beginning with the sixteenth century (unlike that of a host of minor languages). As a consequence, popular sentiment was also much less affected by issues pertaining to language. Most importantly, however, in Eastern and Northern Europe the functional expansion of several vernaculars coincided temporally with the institutional expansion of education and science (whereas in England it preceded it by a wide margin), a coincidence that proved crucial in the success of the purist movement. Finally, there is also a structural trait that contributed to the difference between the fate of the lexicons of English and Hungarian, viz. the agglutinating character of the latter language, which made it relatively easy to produce highly transparent lexical material in large quantities.

Published in

Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2)
edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö
Table of contents
Printed edition: $220.00