Ben Jonson, The English Grammar


Jonson, The English Grammar


  • Intro

    Ben Jonson’s works range from the down to earth drama Bartholomew Fair with its witty observations of London life, to refined translations of Greek and Roman poetry. Less well-known is The English Grammar, written in 1623 and lost in a fire, but rewritten and published after Jonson’s death.


    Jonson’s Grammar gives us a snapshot of English in the early seventeenth century. He considers syntax and spelling, and is one of the first writers to leave us a clear indication of the pronunciation of English. Here Jonson tells us that the letter ‘r’ at the end of a word would be heard clearly, because it is ‘the Dogs letter’ – we are directed to think of the sound a dog makes – it ‘hurreth in the sound’.


    It is notable that the book is printed in both Latin and English, as Jonson used Latin examples both for pronunciation and spelling; the book was intended ‘for the benefit of all strangers (foreigners)’, for whom Latin would be a generally known language. Though the literary critic A V Waite found this both ‘tedious and of doubtful value’, he described the work as ‘a sturdy effort to write down the truth about the English language in the seventeenth century, so far as known or reducible to system’.

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