Just out: another paper on Lowth

Yesterday, Robin Straaijer tweeted: It’s taken a while, but it’s finally been published in . I

In the article, he discusses “possible sources for Priestley’s norm of correctness in his grammar book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, from a socio-historical perspective. I will show that Priestley’s norms of correctness were informed by the usage of the well-educated middle class, the language of science, Robert Lowth’s grammar and the discourse community of eighteenth-century grammarians, and a contemporary canon of good and bad usage.”

Congratulations, Robin! I look forward to reading it.

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Lowth an Archbishop?

In my book The Bishop’s Grammar (OUP, 2011), I tried to put an end to the myth that it was as a bishop that Lowth wrote his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). While he was indeed a clergyman when he wrote his grammar, he did not do so because he was one, but because he had the interests of his son at heart. He wanted Thomas Henry to have the best educational opportunities life could offer.

Just now, I found Lowth the grammarian being referred not as a bishop, which I’m quite used to, but as an archbishop: a post which had indeed been offered to him, but which he had to refuse for reasons of health (see chapter 2 of my book). A grammatical promotion in other words! The reference occurs in the book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (CUP, 2006).

Allan and Burridge (2006)

I can hardly blame Allan and Burridge for not having seen my book, but it does show sloppy research: Lowth is not described as an archbishop in the ODNB online or in his wikipedia entry, simply because he never was.

But I do blame Allan and Burridge for saying that in his private letters Lowth “constantly flouted” the grammatical rule that strong verbs like write and ride have different past tense and participle forms. I blame them for the historical inaccuracy of what they write, because the strong verb system was still highly variable at the time, with variation in private writings like informal letters and diaries being greater (and accepted as such) than in published texts. But also for quoting me for making this generalising statement: in my article on the strong verb system (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2002) I only mention the fact that there are eleven (11!) instances in which the modern strong verb forms are not attested. In a corpus of ca. 30,000 words this hardly warrants the conclusion (theirs, not mine) that he “constantly flouted” the rules of his own grammar. The facts are far more subtle than the authors suggest.


Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2002. Robert Lowth and the strong verb system.
Language Sciences 24: 459–70.

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A new letter by Lowth

A new letter by Robert Lowth has come to light:

new letter by Lowth

It is advertised on the website Modern First Editions (from which I took this image). This is very interesting news, but I have a lot of questions:

  • the information on the website says that the letter is signed, but it lacks a signature, so what made the sellers identify it as a letter from Lowth? (And why do they claim it is signed?)
  • if there is no date or place, on what grounds is it dated 1767? It is said to have been sent from Oxford, but this cannot be seen in the letter itself.
  • how did they get hold of it?
  • why would someone wish to sell the letter?
  • who is it addressed to?

But most importantly of all, why do they ask so much for it? Three hundred pounds is a great deal of money for a letter that isn’t really very informative and that is in far from perfect condition.

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A scrap of a letter from Lowth

I’m very pleased to have become the owner of a scrap of a letter by Lowth, which basically contains his signature only. I was in two minds about bidding for it on ebay, because I’m appalled at the idea that autograph hunters cut up original letters just for the sake of the signature, but the original owner let me know that this had already been done in the nineteenth century.

Here it is (the image was taken from ebay):

Lowth's signature

I think I have a pretty good idea as to who the addressee may have been, and will argue my case as soon as I have the document in my possession.

Thanks to Samuli Kaislaniemi for bringing the scrap to my attention.

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An authentic portrait of Lowth?

This image with a detail from the newly discovered picture of Robert Lowth shows part of the spine of the book in the portrait:

Lowth's De Sacra Hebraeorum

Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum

The spine, however, also reads “DONVM AVTORIS”, a gift from the author. I suppose it could mean anything: why would Lowth hold a gift to himself? Could the man in the portrait be someone else perhaps? But perhaps there are good reasons to accept the portrait as representing Lowth after all: the likeness is indeed very close to the Pine engraving. Perhaps it wasn’t the book as such but the portrait that was a gift from the author. If so, this would be a very subtle hint indeed.

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New portrait by Robert Lowth?

An oil painting has just shown up that might very well represent Robert Lowth.

Copyright Ben Cavanna

Though the painter is currently unknown, the portrait shows clear similarities with the one that you normally see when you google for images of him.

“From an original Picture by R.E. Pine, in the Possession of the Rev. Robert Lowth M.A. Drawn by W. Evans. Engraved by J. Godby.”

Once restored, the portrait will be put up for sale. As there are very few oil paintings by Lowth available, there might be considerable interest in the portrait. If you wish to acquire the portrait, please reply to this post in the form of a comment. Comments don’t go online automatically, and they will be treated with the greatest conficence.

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Lowth letters in Leiden

Great newsLeiden University Library owns two letters from the most authoritative 18th-century English grammarian, Robert Lowth (1710-1787) . They were identified accidentally by Myrte Wouterse, BA English and Honours Academy student at the University of Leiden.

Myrte and a fellow student had been taken to the library by their teacher Thijs Porck, who wanted to introduce them to the Library’s Special Collections. When they asked to see a letter by the orientalist Sir William Jones, they were shown the diary of one of Jones’s correspondents, his Dutch fellow orientalist H.A. Schultens (1749-1793). Schultens was spending a year in Oxford to study some Arabic manuscripts  there. At Oxford, he met Thomas Henry Lowth (1753-1778), Bishop Robert Lowth’s son, and it was through Thomas Henry that Schultens approached Lowth to try and help him obtain an MA from Oxford. An early example of social networking!

Myrte is working on a prsentation on the letters for the third year BA course “Introduction to Late Modern English”, taught by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. The paper is due next week: after that, she will be able to report more on the context of the letters as well as on their contents.

Finding the letters came as a complete surprise to Ingrid Tieken-Boon va Ostade, author of The Bishop’s Grammar, Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (OUP, 2011): she had been collecting letters by Lowth for years without knowing some of them were so close by. They plan to write an article on the letters and what they mean for current research on Lowth but primarily on H.A. Schultens, in the near future.

Schultens’ diary from the period of his stay in Oxford has been published online, and is well-worth reading (if you are able to read Dutch). And if you are interested in letters from the Late Modern English period generally, you might like to follow the Late Modern English letters blog.

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