Elocution Walker

The original article, by Rita Ranson, Université du Havre, is entitled «ELOCUTION WALKER» OU LA RÉUSSITE D’UN CATHOLIQUE dans l’Angleterre des lumières and can be found on www.cercles.com/n4/ranson.pdf, with all the footnotes. The translation is mine, together with any errors. Please feel free to point them out.

‘Elocution Walker’, or the success of a Catholic in the England of the Enlightenment.

John Walker is without doubt one of the greatest English intellectuals of the 18th century. His name is linked with the study of language and in particular the pronunciation of the English Language. His works are known by and enjoy a reputation for quality among the all too small a number of specialists in the history of rhetoric and of phonology; very little information is available about his life, which is even more paradoxical when one realises how popular he was in his life-time. For the educated gentleman of the 18th century the name of John Walker was, in the realm of the study of pronunciation, as prestigious as that of Dr. Johnson in lexicography or of David Garrick, actor of genius, both contemporaries and friends of Walker.

In order to know this individual thinker better, one must first investigate his personality a little more precisely: what were the circumstances that led Walker to become the author of numerous works on oral English? It also seems important to place him in context by considering his relations with his rivals in this field: how did he arrange his assets in relation to the others? Finally we must question in particular why, in spite of the influence of Walker on the English language of the 18th and 19th centuries, his work remains largely unexplored, in fact little used at all in the study of the history of language for that period.

Walker, second-rate actor, ‘papist’, but respected master of elocution

John Walker was born at Colney Hatch on 18th March 1732. He attended the Highgate Free Grammar School, but for financial reasons had to interrupt his studies and become apprentice to an apothecary. However he continued to teach himself, studying amongst other subjects Greek and Latin. Around the age of seventeen—existing sources do not allow for any greater precision—he took the decision to become an actor. Initially he joined a provincial touring troupe, such as that of Ward, but decided eventually to return to London, where in 1754 he was engaged at Drury Lane by David Garrick. He remained an actor from 1754 to 1769, and exercised his talents successively at Drury Lane, the Crow Street Theatre in Dublin, Covent Garden and again at Crow Street. In 1758 he married Sybilla Minors, an actress. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1765. On ceasing in 1769 to be an actor, Walker decided to exercise his talents as a teacher of elocution, initially at a school in Kensington Gravel Pits, then among the young people destined for a career in parliament, at the bar or in the church. Between 1774 and 1805 he produced no less than thirteen works on the language, all of which have survived. Walker died in London, at Tottenham Court Road, on 1st August 1807. The epitaph on his tombstone reads [Cansick 145]:

<blockquote> ;#;

Here lie the remains of Mr JOHN WALKER Author of the Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language and other valuable works on Grammar and Elocution of which he was for many years a very distinguished Professor. [The remainder is not included in the article] He closed a life devoted to piety and virtue, on the 1st of August, 1807, aged 75. Also in the same grave lie interred the remains of S A WALKER, Wife of Mr. JOHN WALKER, who departed this life 1802

[It may have been intended to put her full name Sybilla and the complete date.]

[His memorial stone was preserved by The Baroness Burdett Coutts. June 28, 1877] ;#; </blockquote>

This epitaph is interesting because it emphasizes the two most important elements in the life of this thinker, his major publication and his popularity. What now remains to be explained is why Walker became a teacher of elocution. As we have already mentioned, in 1765 Walker converted to Catholicism; this led, in 1769, to his abandoning his acting career, (a decision made all the easier by the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get roles in Dublin). However, Walker, nephew of the Reverend James Morley, a Calvinist exercising his ministry in Gloucester [Aickin 77], had for a long time felt a deep distaste for anything remotely approaching what the English called ‘popery’. His aversion was such that he left the apothecary where he was working because ‘he was a Roman Catholic’. The author of ‘The Athenaeum’ emphasized this point in particular:

<blockquote> 'And once he informed the writer of this article, that upon his being taken by a friend, at the age of sixteen, to Saint Paul’s cathedral, he expressed much disgust at the appearance of the altar, and the vestments of the clergy, on account of their near approach to popery.' [Aickin 83] </blockquote>

Be that as it may, the writer of ‘The Athenaeum’ insisted equally on the deep understanding Walker had of theological matters [Aickin 82], and on the fact that he was conversant with all the religious quarrels that existed in the country on any point [Aickin 83]. The decision taken by Walker to become a member of the Roman Catholic Church is far from being just another anecdotal aspect of his life: it was to have serious consequences for his new profession. As we know, Roman Catholics in England had been hit by a number of restrictions, including the one concerning teaching people who did not share their beliefs [Verosky 175-228]. Walker applied the rules of his belief to the letter, without ever becoming ‘a bigoted member’ [Aickin 83]. With regard to the constraints placed upon Catholics the writer of ‘The Athenaeum’ stated:

<blockquote> 'He quitted a religion degraded by humiliating exclusions, not to enjoy the privileges and emoluments that are open to members of the establishment, but to adopt a mode of faith, the profession of which was subjected, by the laws then existing, to the most unjust and oppressive penalties.' [Aickin 83] </blockquote>

It seems, nevertheless, that in Walker’s case his adherence to the Catholic Church was ultimately not too restricting. Two testimonies support this. Firstly there is Burke, in 1780, who maintained that Walker already enjoyed a solid reputation:

<blockquote> 'Here my Lord Berkeley, is Mr Walker, whom not to know by name at least, would argue a want of knowledge of the harmonies, cadences, and properties of our language. Against this gentleman and others, we are going, my Lord, upon a poor, ungrounded prejudice of the refuse of the mob of London, to commit an act of gross injustice; and for what? For crimes moral or political? no, my Lord, but because we differ in the meaning affixed to a single word, pronouncing it emphatically, ‘transubstantiation.’' [Prior 191] </blockquote>

But the most interesting testimony is the one given by James Compton in a letter addressed to Edmund Malone in which he relates a visit to Johnson:

<blockquote> 'At the end of April 83 I called on the Doctor at his house, where I found him alone with Mr Walker. The Doctor seemed to be uncommonly pleased of seeing me enter and most chearfully(sic) exclaimed, I must introduce you two gentlemen to each other. Mr Compton, this gentleman has quitted our church to embrace that, which you have lately quitted. This is Mr Walker: Perhaps you have heard of his book. How do you account for another’s conduct? My intimate acquaintance with the book certainly prevented all coldness natural on the first meeting of such contrary converts. I was glad to meet an author, who I thought had rendered me infinite service.' [Osborn 16] </blockquote>

Knowing that the Pronouncing Dictionary of Thomas Sheridan (father of the dramatist) was already available at this time, Walker went to a publisher in January 1783 with his fourth work, Hints for Improvement in the Art of Reading. He already had to his credit a Rhyming Dictionary (1775), a book of exercises on the art of reading and the publication of his lectures given at Oxford (1781). His talent was already recognised, and the fact that he was Catholic seemed a small fault in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was, moreover, because he was a Catholic that he was engaged at Maynooth College, in Ireland, between 1795 and 1797.

Eventually we come to see the reason why Walker became a teacher of elocution: his decision to quit the theatre. But it is paradoxically from the theatre (a world of deceit in the eyes of Catholics at that time) that Walker took in large part his legitimacy as an elocution specialist. To begin with we must remember that English as it was spoken in the 18th century theatre was considered a good model for pronunciation. Its most celebrated representative, David Garrick, is chosen as the exemplar of the most perfect and correct pronunciation of English [Patterson 60]. Nevertheless Garrick was not the only point of reference for Walker in these matters, since other actors and actresses are quoted, in the same way as language specialists or great authors.

Walker was always a second-rate actor; he certainly played numerous roles, but he is remembered for three in particular, that of the poet in The Author, that of Downright in Every Man His Humour, and the lead in Caton. These are the roles that the critics picked out, and their comments throw light today on the qualifications Walker had for being a teacher of elocution. In general it is said that his acting was not gracious and his diction was monotonous, that he acted in the correct manner, but was far from being a great actor [Aickin 78]. In the ‘Dramatic Sensor’ the intentions of the critic are clear:

<blockquote> 'Mr Walker discovered, four or five years since, at Covent Garden has a considerable share of merit, but not enough to serve as a standing dish for the public entertainment.' [Verosky 38] </blockquote>

Kelly in Thepsis shared that opinion [Lamb 25]. It can therefore appear at first sight somewhat amazing that Walker decided to become a teacher of elocution. Walker had, in fact, followed in the footsteps of certain of his contemporaries who had themselves studied elocution and pronunciation, and had been called ‘orthoepists’. The two other great figures of this period were Sheridan and Kenrick. The first was an actor and theatre director, the second an author. It was therefore natural and in consequence logical for lovers of works dedicated to spoken English of the 18th century, that their authors should in one way or another be linked to the theatre. We now look at those qualities that distinguished Walker from the other orthoepists.

Walker: intellectual of his time or orthoepist of genius?

In her work concerning one of the least known orthoepists of Great Britain, Thomas Spence, Beal challenged her reader by demanding whether Spence, Sheridan, Kenrick, Burn, Johnston and Walker were phoneticians worthy of trust [Beal 48]. For historical reasons, the word ‘phonetician’ not having existed in the 18th century, it is better to ask if Walker was a good orthoepist. It is possible to accept Beal’s answer and assert that Walker was actually a reliable orthoepist [Beal 48-56]; bearing Beal’s criteria in mind we note that he effectively had the favour of the public, he was invited to take part in conferences at Oxford, Edinburgh and Dublin, and that he had the merit of having proposed in his dictionary a clear description of the pronunciation of English based on the work of his predecessors and the rules for justifying that pronunciation. It is pointless to say that Beal does not go far enough in her analysis; her purpose is the study of Spence, not Walker. Nevertheless it is natural to ask whether Walker was not, after all, just an opportunist. Had he not already amassed a considerable fortune courtesy of his earlier publications? [Aickin 84].

Since the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755, English lexicography had been undergoing a renaissance. It covered a number of areas, of which the study of pronunciation was one. To the orthoepists mentioned above it is possible to add the names of Buchanan and Perry. Pronouncing dictionaries had become a veritable publishing phenomenon in the second half of the 18th century, as a legitimate consequence of which Walker himself was able to profit from the public’s craze, see the interruption to Sheridan’s Dictionary and put himself to the forefront. Perhaps the same comment could be made about his Rhyming Dictionary of 1755—the existing ones were becoming unsuitable—the same for his books of teaching exercises published in 1777—another kind of work of which the public, and speakers in particular, were very fond—for the publication of his lectures at Oxford in 1781 and their follow-up of 1785, that was not ultimately a way of imitating Sheridan—and finally the same for his Greek and Latin Dictionary of 1778—the burning topic of the age! To some extent we are obliged to recognise that Walker followed the trends of his age, anxious to fulfil the desires of a public that wanted to be educated: to be convinced of this we need only consult the relevant bibliographies by Alston. But a successful publication does not guarantee the competence of its author. It is true that a good number of works on the subject have not survived, unlike the majority of those by Walker, the subject of many editions. We must now advance arguments other than those of Beal in order to confirm the remarkable quality of Walker’s works.

Let’s return for a moment to the author’s life. Walker had a distinct advantage over a number of orthoepists of his time: he was born in Colney Hatch near London. Now Putteham had determined, around 1589, what was to be considered the norm for Standard English. On a purely geographical basis it was a sixty-mile radius round London. Walker was born and lived the better part of his life in this area. He thus had an indisputable advantage over Buchanan (Scottish), Spence (born in Newcastle but with a Scottish father), Kenrick (from Herefordshire, an area far removed from Walker’s native London), but above all over Sheridan, who was Irish. Johnson was only summarising the opinion of the majority of his contemporaries regarding the competence of Sheridan when he said: ‘he has in the first place the disadvantage of being an Irishman.’ [Boswell 470].

Another element that made Walker a more than suitable model—and something, at this level, that his greatest rival Sheridan had nothing to be jealous of—was the fact that he was recognised as an excellent public orator. Walker, like many intellectuals of the time, regularly attended a celebrated London club: The Robin Hood Society (only The Kit Kat Club was in a position to rival it). This club was a little unorthodox and was frequently accused of proposing such views on sensitive issues in politics or questions of religion. Well-known people in London took part in the debates, and Walker would in this way rub shoulders with Burke, Boswell, Goldsmith, Foote or even Macklin. After the closure of the club in 1773 Walker frequented The Chapter Coffee-House, very famous in its time. For him these places were a veritable ‘practical school of eloquence’ [Aickin 78]. It was here that our orthoepist became not only perfectly acquainted with the English language, but also the articulation and the eloquence, qualities that had been sadly lacking in the theatre. These efforts and his talent in that field were finally recognised elsewhere:

<blockquote> 'He greatly excels as an Orator, having a full round Voice, a Faculty of Utterance, a graceful Pronunciation, and a beautiful Action. If Wit, as it has been defined by a Great Poet, consists in a quick Conception & easy Delivery, Mr W*lk*r has a great Share of it.' [Gentleman 193] </blockquote>

This testimony, published in 1764, corresponds to a remarkable development in Walker’s acting career; in 1764 Walker played Covent Garden for a third season. From 1765 the roles he got were more numerous and more important then previously. It is legitimate to think that it was these qualities noted by Gentleman, but also the support of influential members of Society that enabled him to give the lectures at Oxford, Edinburgh and even Dublin. This is particularly significant. Initially everyone stressed the similarity with the route taken by Thomas Sheridan. But a much more important element in Walker’s case was that he was allowed to speak in these prestigious universities even though he was a Catholic and, therefore supposedly only allowed to dispense his knowledge to his fellow Catholics. His presence in Dublin is especially meaningful as the Irish had always had a clear preference for Sheridan, the friend of Dean Swift. But it seems that Walker had enough acquaintances in the respectable classes—probably Catholics—who would recommend him [Aickin 78]. Walker had succeeded in entering the literary world of the time thanks to the support of influential people, where Sheridan himself had not benefited. In this way the actor David Garrick had recommended him to John Hume in Edinburgh [Little & Karl III, 935].

To the support of Garrick he was able to add that of Johnson. The two other leading orthoepists of the 18th century had not befitted in this way. Neither Kendrick nor Sheridan could claim this, for the first was in open conflict with Johnson and the greater part of the literary establishment whom he regularly slandered. [Boswell 351, 397]; the second was in conflict with Garrick (their troupes of actors were competitors), and with Johnson [Boswell 274-275]. Walker himself benefited from the friendship and recognition of Johnson and Garrick (the latter having introduced him to the former). This had allowed him moreover to dedicate certain of his works to them (the leaflet of 1774 and the Rhyming Dictionary to Garrick; Elements of Elocution to Johnson). If the support of Garrick can be put down to the strong friendship apparent between him and Walker, that of Johnson is particularly amazing when one remembers the latter’s opinion of pronouncing dictionaries [Boswell 470], which he considered totally useless. Nevertheless it is a little hard to imagine Johnson recommending to Oxford an ex-actor, and a Catholic to boot, on the simple pretext that he was the friend of one of his former star pupils, Garrick.

What also makes Walker a good orthoepist is the scientific approach he adopted in his work. Of course from our viewpoint his methods are outdated and limited, but for his contemporaries they fulfilled their expectations, if one believes the reaction of the majority of enthusiasts. Another criticism that can be made of him is that he published works that were intended to fill what were considered gaps in the research of the time purely and simply to satisfy the expectations of the public. One of Walker’s favourite devices was the constant reference to Greek and Latin authors who served as his models, and to the works of his contemporaries in his domain and in literature. Thus Walker, in addition to the orthoepists already mentioned, regularly cited Perry, Ash, Entick, Nares, Bailey, Fry, Dryden, Pope, Lowth, Wallis, Garth, Chesterfield, Watt and Harris. This list of references seems to be the minimum requirement for the public to begin to take interest in a teacher of elocution.

The success and the reputation of the students represent a considerable testimony to the work and talent of the teacher of elocution who trained them. Walker was teaching elocution to a very discriminating public. Firstly to the foreign aristocracy like the Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski and the English aristocracy like the son of Lord Erskine; we also know that Walker had been recommended to and engaged by Burke to tutor his son in this area. Burke was himself an orator of acknowledged talent, and it is difficult to imagine him engaging anyone whose abilities in this field were in any way questionable. Walker was also the teacher of the celebrated bishop John Milner.

To all these elements one can add that Walker also adopted a certain logic in the sequence of his publications. Certainly his plan for a pronouncing dictionary dates from 1774, and the prospectus published that year calls for subscriptions to the project. But as the writer of The Athenaeum notes [Aickin 79], Walker had to reduce his expectations, and ended up with a much more modest publication. Thus in 1775 he published a Rhyming Dictionary. Then between 1777 and 1786 there followed five works on the subject of elocution. The first obstacle had been cleared; from the simple reciting of one particular type of text, poems, Walker moved on to tackle the reading and reciting of a greater variety of texts, touching on the domains of literature, politics and even religion. He extended his audience to include the more scientific with the publication of his lectures in 1781, high society (on this point one should mention his Rhetorical Grammar), parents, schools and private tutors (one thinks here of the ten volumes of reading exercises of 1777 and 1786, selections from the works of ‘the best authors’, according to the opinion and usage of that time). In 1787, just before and in anticipation of the Pronouncing Dictionary, Walker published The Melody of Speaking Delineated. It was a brilliant attempt at representing what we today would call ‘intonation’, and what he himself called ‘the inflexions of the voice’. For the record we should mention that Walker was suspected on this occasion of plagiarising Steele’s Prosodia Rationalis. This litany of publications then allowed him, his reputation being by now well established, to offer a pronouncing dictionary in 1791. Walker was in a position to supervise three more editions, those of 1797, 1802 and 1806. By this stage he had reached a large audience, not just men of letters but also those who aspired to be. This dictionary was succeeded very logically by another, on the pronunciation of Greek and Latin terms, (The Key), a particular difficulty for 18th century English speakers, not only in the world of letters but also in that of the arts, such as painting. Walker’s last two works were the only ones to contribute nothing new in the field of spoken English, or reach out specifically to a new audience. For this reason Walker was content, at the start of his grammar, to refer back to his earlier publications [Walker 1-2]. The only remarkable thing about these last two volumes published in 1801 (The Teacher’s Assistant) and 1805 (Outlines of English Grammar), is that Walker seems finally to have turned towards the study of written themes in English.

The genius of Walker lies therefore in his two courses: to supply the informed public with points of reference in the form of rules (like the celebrated Principles of English Pronunciation placed at the start of his dictionary) or a visual and actual representation (which was paradoxical for his contemporaries who accepted Johnson’s definition when he stressed ‘the fugitive quality of language’ in the case of spoken English). These techniques allowed the readers of his works to make progress, step by step, in their mastery of matters of language. But what ultimately is the fate of Walker’s work?

Walker: celebrated intellectual of the 18th century but forgotten in the 21st century?

Walker seems today to be almost completely ignored, except by specialists in the history of phonology or linguistics. It is true that since the beginning of the 1970s there has been renewed interest in studying the development of the English language (particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries); but when one compares the number of these studies with those devoted to earlier periods, they are extremely rare and are not a priority among researchers. Charles Jones thinks this may be explained by a certain reticence towards the 18th and 19th centuries, being too close to the 20th [Jones 279]. Is it about being prudent to avoid too much retrospective criticism, or must we see it as indicating a lack of interest on the part of researchers? Whatever the reason, studies devoted to the history of linguistic ideas during the 18th century and to those contemporaries of Walker in the field too often leave readers and researchers wanting more. Most of the time study of the development of English pronunciation during this period is slap-dash, as in such classics as the 4th edition of Baugh and Cable, or the book by Freeborn. This is certainly not to say that figures like Johnson or Lowth have been forgotten. But it is much more difficult to find anything written about the orthoepists of the 18th century. In those studies which are a little more focussed, such as those on Standard English for example, there can be some references to Walker; this is the case in Wardaugh, Collins and Mees and even in Mugglestone. The situation is even more alarming in works aimed at the general public. In one such, in reference to a dictionary published in 1791 we read [Crystal 77]: ‘In 1774, the year before Jane Austen was born, John Walker published his Pronouncing Dictionary of English.’

In another classic of English Studies published in Oxford [MacArthur 931] we find one entry ‘Thomas Sheridan’, and another very brief one for ‘Orthoepy’, in which there is an allusion to Walker and Kenrick [MacArthur 732]. The entry for ‘Elocution’ is very short, and no orthoepists are mentioned! [MacArthur 345] So that the reader is not totally exhausted looking for mention of the name ‘Walker’ (or Kenrick for that matter) Walker is cited in the article ‘Cockney’ and more than three quarters of it comprises a quotation from the Dictionary; Walker is mentioned in the articles ‘Dictionary’, ‘Learner’s Dictionary’, ‘Orthoepy’ and ‘Rhetorics’, where there are references to a few words from his dictionary; and finally his name appears in an article on ‘Worcester’, the American lexicographer! Is this to say that Walker must be added to the long list of phoneticians (or rather orthoepists) forgotten by Abercrombie? During their remarkable study of Daniel Jones, Collins and Mees talk about Walker in these terms:

<blockquote> 'In Britain Walker’s dictionary remained unchallenged throughout the nineteenth century […]. In fact, no widely recognised successful authoritative rival was produced until 1917 when Jones brought out the EPD.' [Collins & Mees 462] </blockquote>

In effect Walker has had a remarkable impact on the study of English pronunciation. He is the only one among the leading lights of Orthoepy whose dictionary continued to be published after the death of its author in 1807. Walker was so popular in the 19th century that Charles Dickens mentioned him in Dombey and Son [Dickens 253]. The impact he had on English pronunciation and its study during this period can be measured in at least three ways. Firstly Walker was successful in imposing what may be called the superscript number system, that is to say writing above each vowel a figure to indicate its pronunciation. All those who had tried to use another method saw their system made obsolete. Walker was not the inventor of this system. The idea came originally from Kenrick. The latter had elsewhere recognised the existence of a vowel, notated as 0, whose quality was indistinct, and obviously equated to ‘schwa’. One can only regret that the distinction was not given to Kenrick’s publication, but to go further would be to rewrite the history of phonology. For transcribing the consonants Walker used the normal alphabet. But the system is sometimes inadequate as it doesn’t, for example, have different symbols for the two recognised pronunciations of ‘th’.

Even though other important elements have contributed to the reputation of the dictionary the system of transcription remains pre-eminent. This is evident from the constant re-issuing of Walker’s Dictionary up till 1904: thirty-four times in England alone. But it had also been published in the United States (in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia for example) until 1858; in Ireland until at least 1859. In Scotland one recalls an edition published in Glasgow in 1831 and another in Edinburgh in 1846. Walker’s supremacy is such that it was possible in 1882 to hold an opinion like that of Viëtor:

<blockquote> 'We make do with a pronunciation manual such as Walker’s, originally published in 1791 (!) in order to study a language like English which has developed with all the energy of its native steam-engines.' [Collins & Mees 462] </blockquote>

The attitude of Viëtor is the complete opposite of Pitman in 1843:

<blockquote> 'The basis of the phonetic exposition of universal speech will be found in Walker’s ‘Principles of English Pronunciation’ prefixed to his ‘Critical Pronouncing Dictionary’, a work which every Phonographer ought to possess.' [Kelly 248] </blockquote>

The impact was such that, throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, Walker was the recognised model, as is shown by the testimony of the German Benecke, who taught in Potsdam:

<blockquote> 'It only remains for me to give the reasons for choosing Walker’s figures. […] To this end I compared English and German orthoepists. […] In doing so I found that Walker’s system predominated.' [Benecke xv-xviii] </blockquote>

The last point allows us to take full measure of the impact of Walker not only on the study of pronunciation, but even more so on the study of the English Language in general: the fact that Walker’s Dictionary was combined with that of Johnson in England, and those of Worcester and Webster in the United States. The publication in one volume of the ‘Johnson-Walker’ is shown by the following comments in the Critical Review:

<blockquote> 'On the whole, this elaborate Dictionary may be considered as a valuable supplement to that of Dr Johnson, to which extensive erudition and genius Walker does ample justice, without omitting to neglect his defects.' [Critical Review 302] </blockquote>

The association with Webster and Worcester is a little more surprising since American linguists were trying to separate themselves from the British in the field of linguistics. Two attitudes distinguished them, one favouring the English model and illustrated by Worcester; the other wanting to be quite separate, and illustrated by Webster. So Worcester favoured Walker’s pronunciation model and stated that ‘Johnson was supreme for definitions and authorities, Walker for pronunciation.’ [Worcester iv] Webster himself declared that ‘fortunately Walker’s pronunciation has never been generally accepted in England.’ [Webster lx]. The irony of History is that, at Webster’s death, his editor published a corrected version of his dictionary and made specific use of Walker’s work: ‘Walker’s opinion and authority are too important to justify us in rejecting them altogether.’ [Webster lxxiv]

If Walker’s authority seems incontestable in the 19th century what about the 20th? The question must be tackled from a different angle. It is much more a matter of confirming whether Walker had the authority to be considered a reliable guide.

Although Walker’s prestige has never been in doubt in areas such as the rhetoric of the Enlightenment or the study of rhyme (Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary has never been out of print), it seems that his thoughts and work concerning the study of pronunciation may be relatively unknown. Yet back in 1947 Sheldon published an interesting article concerning Walker’s influence on English pronunciation in the United States [Sheldon 130-146]. Several articles of this period mention Walker but in works specifically on the development of English there are no systematic references. When Walker is mentioned he only plays a reduced role; no-one describes him systematically, no-one insists on the importance of the place he occupies. Is Walker to become just an obscure and minor orthoepist?

It seems in fact that his works are still attracting the attention they deserve even these days. Due to shortage of space we must be content with mentioning only three studies as examples.

First the study by Green. In his remarkable Chasing the Sun he proposes an interesting approach to Walker’s influence on American lexicography [Green 235-250]. One must deplore however the fact that he has not discussed Walker and the other leading orthoepists of the 18th century in the chapter devoted to Johnson, or in the one on English lexicography of the 19th century. The importance of Walker is affirmed but not demonstrated, even when that is the case for the majority of other lexicographers mentioned. In that it follows the same approach as Mugglestone.

Another study referring to Walker is that by Miller on the English spoken in South Carolina in the 18th century. There the author mentions Walker’s Dictionary; he allows him to place the onus for the pronunciation of the plurals of ‘post’ and ‘fist’ on the English speakers who had just arrived in that part of the United States. Miller does not explain his choice, and his excerpt is somewhat curious:

<blockquote> 'Furthermore, eighteenth and nineteenth-century comments attest dissyllabic pronunciations in white English usage long after literary language has changed. For example in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), […] John Walker commented that ‘the inhabitants of London of the lower order […] pronounced the plural of post and fist in two syllables.’' [Miller 281] </blockquote>

These two studies (and various others) prove that Walker is quite a central element in the history of English and its pronunciation, since authors quote him to justify their theories. It seems curious, when Green takes care to specify who Walker was, that he should only put him in the chapter about American lexicography, as if his influence was limited just to that country; for the pronunciation itself this is no doubt true. But it is not the case for the description and methodology that Walker uses. As for Miller, his choice seems to be based on pure chance, as in the fact that he supports his study by quoting from different editions of Webster or Walker, or the fact that he assumes that the works of Walker are familiar to his readers. There is nothing very convincing to suggest any real knowledge of Walker, or to justify his choice to the reader.

In her study on Spence, Beal takes the time to present and compare each of the orthoepists that she quotes. John Walker, like Sheridan or Burn, has a choice position. This, finally, is the work in which one learns most about the importance of our orthoepist (nearly as much as about Spence). Unlike the other studies of English pronunciation in the 18th century, Beal explains to her reader where Walker has come from, and why he makes an acceptable witness to the pronunciation of his period. (We have already developed this point above). It seems that the lack of precision, and the inadequate use of Walker in the majority of studies in this field, is a sign of a lack of awareness of the work of this man, who, for those concerned with orthoepy, was the equal of Johnson or Lowth. This is in fact the basis of Beal’s preferred point of reference. Walker is used at each stage of her analysis, and the author justifies her choice each time.

It is high time Walker and his works were more than just names mentioned in the course of insignificant remarks, right for references. We already have some familiarity with many aspects of the history of the development of English in the 18th century. The chapter Jones devotes to this period furnishes us with a good illustration; the 18th and 19th centuries are dealt with in twenty-five pages! [Jones 279-304]; by comparison the survey of the preceding two centuries covers fifty. The reader must decide whether the 18th and 19th centuries produced few changes or whether few works on the subject have been written. What are we to think about Walker’s rhyming dictionary, where hardly anything inaccurate is said about the subject in the preamble: you can learn lots of things which have led to the appearance of that edition! If this article has awoken the curiosity of the reader so that the importance of John Walker in the history of the English language is finally recognised at its true value, that will only be justice.

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