Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Writers from the Romantic period embraced Locke's principle of linguistic arbitrariness as they reacted to the threat to their literary authority posed by the standardizers of English such as Samuel Johnson. Their texts articulate a desire to maximize the potential for authorial freedom that Locke's theory of language offers. By exploiting arbitrary properties of language, writers hoped to transcend the linguistic limits imposed by the standardizers and thus to confirm their status as creative practitioners of the English language. Priestley, one of such writers, capitalizes on the arbitrariness of signs as described by Locke when he envisions a perfect language that shall be universally used in the future millennial kingdom. Predicated upon the arbitrary connection between words and "things of considerable consequence," Priestley's universal language scheme allows the writer to ponder meanings outside the semantic range of standard lexicography. In Pigott's Political Dictionary (1795), Locke's semantic theory becomes the means to radicalize Locke's political ideas, especially the idea of the right of revolution. The arbitrariness (or voluntariness) of signification encourages Pigott to revise Johnson's standard definitions in a way that articulates French Revolutionary principles. Wordsworth sides with Francis Grose--the author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785)--in placing a high value on vulgar English. But unlike Grose, he contends that rural language is "more permanent," i.e. durable, than a refined language. Wordsworth's description of how rustics' language achieves durability reveals that he is deeply conscious of all linguistic signs being arbitrary. Furthermore, the naturalism that Wordsworth attributes to his poetic diction results from his appropriation of the arbitrariness that rules the language of rustics. Coleridge emphatically denies the role of linguistic arbitrariness in his theorization of the symbol. The signifying process that produces the symbol, however, operates by seizing on the possibilities for semantic expansion that the arbitrary quality of the sign opens up. As a result, the privileged status of the symbol, and hence of the "natural" in Coleridge's system, is thrown into question. My reading of Coleridge deconstructs the opposition of natural / arbitrary in his thinking about language. By exerting arbitrary power over the ways in which words stand for ideas, Romantic authors sought to restore the vitality of their literary language and to lead the continued progress of their mother tongue.
language, Locke, Romanticism, standardization
v, 220 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 213-220).
Copyright 2013 Sunghyun Jang
Jang, Sunghyun. "The arbitrary power of language: Locke, romantic writers, and the standardizers of English." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2013.