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SOCIETY FOR PURE ENGLISH, The

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)
.

See BAD ENGLISH, GOOD ENGLISH, PLAIN, PROGRESS AND DECAY IN LANGUAGE.

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