Are there historical references to a concept of "Pure English"?

The Society for Pure English

The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language lists The Society for Pure English as follows:

SOCIETY FOR PURE ENGLISH, The. A reforming society founded in England in 1913 by a number of writers and academics on the initiative of the poet Robert Bridges. The outbreak of the First World War impeded its development, but between 1919 and 1946 it carried on a campaign against what it regarded as degenerate tendencies within the language, mainly through a series of 66 Tracts, for many years printed and distributed by Oxford University Press. The terms pure and tract indicate the quasi-missionary approach adopted by Bridges and his associates. In Tract 21 (1925), which sets out the aims of the Society, Bridges indicated that by pure he did not intend Teutonic (that is, Germanic), an interpretation associated with the 19c reformer William BARNES, who had advocated a return to undiluted SAXONISM. Pure was deliberately adopted ‘as an assertive protest against that misappropriation of the term which would condemn our historic practice’. Bridges considered that the spread of English throughout the world was ‘a condition over which we have no control’, but one that ‘entails a vast responsibility and imposes on our humanity the duty to do what we can to make our current speech as good a means as possible for the intercommunication of ideas’.

Bridges argued that ‘we are the inheritors of what may claim to be the finest living literature in the world’, and that steps should therefore be taken to ensure that the everyday language does not ‘grow out of touch with that literature…so that to an average Briton our Elizabethan heritage would come to be as much an obsolete language as Middle English is to us now’. He saw as a special peril the scattering of speakers of English among ‘communities of other-speaking races, who…learn yet enough of ours to mutilate it, and establishing among themselves all kinds of blundering corruptions, through habitual intercourse infect therewith the neighbouring English’.

Although the Society had only a slender influence on users of English beyond literary and philological circles, many of the views expressed by Bridges and his fellow members continue to be widely endorsed, especially by older members of the middle classes throughout the English-speaking world. They are from time to time restated by pressure groups with similar interests, such as the Queen's English Society in England in the 1980s, under the presidency of the writer and retired BBC broadcaster Godfrey Talbot, who echoes Bridges in writing:

Accost me as The Old-Fashioned Anglo if you like, but it appears to me that the Mother Tongue which half the world now uses is a cause for concern because while in demand overseas it is in decay at home, where increasingly it is both taken for granted and tainted. Restoration and repair are needed. Rarely has a rich inheritance been so undervalued as English today. (‘Protecting the Queen's English’, English Today 11, July 1987)

© Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language 1998, originally published by Oxford University Press 1998.

The Society for Pure English

The Introduction to Society for Pure English Tract 3 has this to say about The Society for Pure English:

The Society for Pure English was established so "that a few men of letters, supported by the scientific alliance of the best linguistic authorities, should form a group or free association, and agree upon a modest and practical scheme for informing popular taste on sound principles, for guiding educational authorities, and for introducing into practice certain slight modifications and advantageous changes." The purpose of the society can be stated as follows "The ideal of their proposed association is both conservative and democratic. It would aim at preserving all the richness of differentiation in our vocabulary, its nice grammatical usages, its traditional idioms, and the music of its inherited pronunciation: it would oppose whatever is slipshod and careless, and all blurring of hard-won distinctions, but it would no less oppose the tyranny of schoolmasters and grammarians, both in their pedantic conservatism, and in their ignorant enforcing of newfangled 'rules', based not on principle, but merely on what has come to be considered 'correct' usage. The ideal of the Society is that our language in its future development should be controlled by the forces and processes which have formed it in the past; that it should keep its English character, and that the new elements added to it should be in harmony with the old; for by this means our growing knowledge would be more widely spread, and the whole nation brought into closer touch with the national medium of expression."

Copyright © Standard Publications, Incorporated.

The Society for Pure English Tracts

The Society for Pure English published many tracts during its history. The first sixty have been published in (at least) two editions:

  • SOCIETY FOR PURE ENGLISH. Tracts 1-60. Published by Clarendon Press, Oxford (Oxford University Press), 1919-1948. [6 volume original edition]
  • SOCIETY FOR PURE ENGLISH. Tracts 1-60. Published by Garland Publishing, New York, 1979. [Reprint of original edition in 7 volumes]


The Society for Pure English (Article in The New York Times)

The following is an extract from an article in the New York Times that talks about the Society for Pure English in early 20th century England.

A Campaign for Pure English by Brander Matthews

The Society for Pure English came into being in England in 1913 at the suggestion of Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, Henry Bradley, the successor of Sir James Murray as editor of the still unfinished Oxford Dictionary; Sir Walter Raleigh, the Oxford Professor of English Literature, and L. Pearsall Smith, author of a useful little book on the history of the English language. Among those who joined it immediately were Arthur J. Balfour, A. C. Bradley, Austin Dobson, Thomas Hardy, J. W. Mackaif, Gilbert Murray, Mrs Humphry Ward and Mrs Wharton – this last being the only American adherent, unless L. Pearsall Smith can be reckoned as another. The rallying of these men and women of letters was not more significant than the prompt adhesion of the professors of English in the various British universities: W. M. Dixon, Oliver Elton, E. S. Gordon, C. H. Herford, W. P. Ker, G. C. Moore-Smith, F. W. Moorman, A. Quiller-Couch, George Saintsbury and H. C. K. Wyld.

Read the complete article.

Published in The New York Times, 26 September 1920.
Copyright © The New York Times

The Society for Pure English (Article in The Spectator)

The Society for Pure English featured in an article in The Spectator in 19 November 1921. It may be read online at The Spectator Archive.

Treatise on Pure English

An interesting book, Pure English : a treatise on words and phrases, or practical lessons in the use of language, by Fred H. Hackett and Ernest A. Girvin, was published in 1886 but is still relevant today. It is available for reading online.