John Hart and the Beginning of English Linguistics in Tudor England

Andrew Ji Ma
Southern University of Science and Technology, China

1. Introduction

John Hart (c. 1501–1574) is a remarkable figure in the history of British linguistic thought. Along with Thomas Smith (1513–1577), William Bullokar (c. 1531–1609), and Richard Mulcaster (1531/2–1611), he is one of the most important orthographers in the sixteenth century when English spelling questions were becoming central to discussions of the vernacular. The sixteenth century saw the publication of the first group of books dedicated to systematic study of the English language which began with the movement of orthographic reform. In the history of British linguistics, Hart’s An Orthographie (1569) has a special status: it is the first treatise not only focusing on the study of the English language but also published in English (rather than Latin which was the academic lingua franca in Western Europe during that period). His three linguistic writings are outstanding in terms of both depth and breadth. To be specific, as one of the seminal orthographers of the Tudor period, he has detailed description of the English sounds and thus is widely recognised as the first phonetician of the English language in England. Moreover, his work is much richer than merely technical analysis of the language—his ideas about language are informed by the theory and practice of Tudor politics, which can be better understood by bringing together the technical, ideological, and rhetorical dimensions in one discussion.

2. Hart’s origin, education, and career

First, it is necessary to say something about Hart’s origin, education, and career. There is much uncertainty concerning Hart’s birthplace and his family’s social standing. Danielsson holds that Hart “must have been born and brought up in or near London” (1963: 271) and “belonged to the Harts of Northolt, who had been owners of lands and tenements there since the days of his grandparents at least” (1955: 19). But some scholars believe that the Northolt family was just of tenant farmers (DNB, Salmon 2004b) and Hart “was a Devonshire man by birth” (Kökeritz 1949: 243). He must have been born before the summer of 1501 because “the death of his father, John Hart, was presented at the Northolt Court Baron 19 October 1500” (Danielsson 1955: 20). No record is available about Hart’s education and thus his early schooling remains the object of guesswork to a large extent. But his linguistic writings reveal three crucial facts. First, he had a good command of the linguistic thought of classical authorities such as Cicero, Quintilian, and Prisian, to name a few, which can be seen from the large amount of quotations that he uses throughout the texts. He was also well-versed in the two classical languages in addition to several contemporary vernaculars such as French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Flemish. Second, Hart had an academic association with Cambridge scholars such as Sir Thomas Smith and Sir John Cheke (1514–1557) who were active promoters of orthographic reform, and was heavily influenced by them (see Hart 1551: 100; 1569: fol.6r, fols.37r–38v). But according to the investigation of Danielsson (1955: 21), there is no record at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford showing that he was a student there. Third, Hart had much overseas experience. One of his published works tells us that he had “bin a traveller bi-iond ðe seas, emong vulgar tungs, ov huitʃ, ðat smaul knʒōled ei hāv, haþ bin ðe kauz ov mein enterpreiz” (1569: fol.57r), and that “the trauayle, the cost and time which I haue spent in other affaires thereby attaining to the knowledge to be able to compose this worke hath bene more deare vnto me than some wil think” (1569: fol.3v). He had much knowledge of contemporary French scholars of orthography such as Louis Meigret (see Hart 1569: fol.57r). As for his career, “it is not until the middle of the century that we get a first glimpse of his activities” (Danielsson 1955: 21). During the 1550s he began to serve as a diplomatic courier. By the year 1563 Hart had been appointed by Sir William Cecil (1520–1598) as an official in the Court of Wards and Liveries, and later as Newhaven Pursuivant. It is well-documented that Hart was promoted to Chester Herald on 18 July 1567. Hart’s background such as the travel in Europe (especially in France) and his official role of Chester Herald played a crucial role in shaping the ideology and rhetoric of his linguistic thought.

3. Hart as the author of the first treatise on the English language published in English 

John Hart authored three treatises on spelling reform during the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the motivation for which was related to the current state of the spelling of English. As Hart observes, in his times, there were mainly four types of “corruptions” in English spelling, i.e. “diminution”, “superfluity”, “usurpation”, and “misplacing” (1569: fols.14r-14v), and this “confusion and disorder” made the “present” manner of writing “rather a kinde of ciphering, or such a darke kinde of writing” (1569: fol.2r). Hart proposed to carry out orthographic reform to remove the obstacles to the acquisition of literacy brought about by the inconsistency and irregularity of the current English spelling. The first piece of writing is an autographic manuscript, entitled The Opening of the Unreasonable Writing of Our Inglish Toung: wherin is shewid what necessarili is to be left, and what folowed for the perfect writing therof. Dedicated to King Edward VI, it was “begun, possibly, in 1549 and completed in 1551, but conceived much earlier” (Danielsson 1955: 106). When he was drafting this manuscript, it is highly probable that “he lived in London and was in the service of the King” because “he refers to himself as the King’s humble servant” and intends to submit it “to the royal censorship” in the prefatory passage (Danielsson 1955: 21). Originally, he planned to publish it on completion but did not do this for some unknown reason. Twenty years later, during the time he was serving as Chester Herald at the College of Arms in London, he revised the manuscript and published it as a book under the title of An Orthographie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or paint thimage of mannes voice, most like to the life or nature (1569). As Dobson points out, “its publication seems to be foreseen in the verses written before the manuscript (probably at a later date than its composition)” (1968: 63). It is an epoch-making work in the history of British linguistics for it is the first treatise in England not only dedicated to the study of the English language but also written in English (rather than in Latin). In the next year he published another thin pamphlet, entitled A Methode or comfortable beginning for all vnlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English, in a very short time, vvith pleasure (1570). It is a little primer of reading, designed to instruct learners in the use of his new alphabet. In these three treatises, Hart systematically elucidates his proposition for reforming the existing orthography strictly on phonetic principles: one letter represents one sound, and vice versa. That is, in Hart’s own words, “we write as we speak” and “the writing shuld have so mani Letters, as the pronunciation neadeth of voices, and no more, or lesse” (1551: 32).

4. Hart and the beginning of English phonetic studies in England

My first encounter with John Hart’s name was in E. J. Dobson’s monumental work English Pronunciation 15001700 (1957/1968) where he is recognised as deserving “to rank with the greatest English phoneticians and authorities” (1968: 62) and is said to be “still not as well known as he should be” (1968: 63). In fact, as early as 1897, Otto Jespersen “called Hart the first phonetician of the modern period” (1907: 10) although, as Salmon points out, “the term ‘phonetics’ may seem something of an anachronism when applied to the study of speech-sounds in the sixteenth century” (1994: 1).

[T]his title of honour is justified by his fairly accurate descriptions of the organic positions required for consonants as well as for vowels, descriptions which are as a rule superior to those found in most works on speech sounds written even two centuries after Hart’s death, though, of course, rather defective if judged by twentieth century standards. He sees clearly the difference between what we call voiceless and voiced consonants.

(Jespersen 1907: 10)

[H]e clearly distinguishes between back vowels, a, o, u, and front vowels, e, i—without, of course, using these names which were first invented by Alexander Melville Bell. He knows what a diphthong is […] and his notions of vowel-length are unusually sound for his age, as be keeps quality and quantity neatly distinct.

(Jespersen 1907: 11)

It should be noted that in England Vivian Salmon was an outstanding scholar in the study of Hart’s works from the perspective of the history of phonetic studies. As Salmon acknowledges, Hart’s linguistic writings show that “some relatively sophisticated ideas” of English phonetics “found their way into print” (Salmon 1994: 4), “such as consonant assimilations, which were hardly noticed again until the twentieth century” (Salmon 1994: 5). Hart not only discussed the speech organs and their function and distinguished the articulation and categories of speech sounds, he also examined superasegmental features of English such as stress, elision, and intonation. Apart from Jespersen, Dobson and Salmon, scholars such as Danielsson (1963) and Lass (1980) also mention Hart’s achievement of phonetic studies in their own publications.

5. Hart’s religio-political conceptualisation of orthographic reform

To check out the phonetic achievements of Hart praised by Dobson and Jespersen, I got down to a close reading of Hart’s three original texts. I saw the splendid technical attainments indeed. But, unexpectedly, my attention was more seized by the religio-political dimensions of the material and their influence on shaping Hart’s orthographic ideas—the interplay between the linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of the discourse. The on-going movement of religious reform and the political ideal of commonwealth, along with other interrelated sociopolitical issues, pervade his texts, and are used rhetorically as images and models of his linguistic thought.

For instance, Hart argues that his new orthographic design should be supported because “yt toucheth the Communewelth” (1551: 12); superfluous letters should be eliminated as they are “the ydle or offensive members, in a politike common welth” (1569: fol.12r); borrowed words (which are with letters showing “deriuations” from other tongues) are supposed to be “naturallized” (1569: fol.16r), “euen as we whould not haue any straunger to be conuersant, nor dwell amongst vs, though he be a frée Denison” (1569: fol.15v); The “order” between sound, letters, and diacritical marks is framed in normative vocabularies and concepts of Tudor commonwealth, brimming over with sociological hints. A well-ordered orthography is expounded in terms of “good order and obedience within an essentially hierarchical society” (Jones 2000: 34). Letters are required to keep their proper “natures”, “orders” and “offices”, without abusing and usurping the “power” of others (1551: 141–163; also see 1570: sig.A.iiijr).

Orthographic reform is also compared to religious reform and, indeed, regarded as indispensable for Christian belief and salvation. The principle of having “the writing to be framed to the speaking” and ensuring “the letter” to “kéepe the voyce” (1569: fol.9v) is taken by Hart as the “compasse they must take, and vse as infallible and certaine, to led them the right course to be brought into the desired hauen” (1569: fol.10r; also see 1551: 34). The “usurped and vicious coustume” maintained in English orthography is set side by side with the “usurped authorite” of “the bisshop of Rome” (1551: 39), and “the vices in the corruption of letters and writings” are regarded as similar to the “sinne” which “crept in among us” and stayed “in the flesh” (1551: 40). The law of true writing (1551: 76) is a revelation of God’s eternal law on the paper, and having an absolute spelling system strictly based on phonetic principles is in accordance with the spiritual pursuit of truly faithful Christians who turn their “soules into a purenes of lyfe, and to represent the nature of God” (1551: 40–41; also 1569: fol.12r). Moreover, the psalter, the “order of morning and euening prayer”, and the New Testament (1570: sig.[]v) are conceived to be published in the new alphabet. It is envisioned by Hart that with the new method of spelling “the multitude” would be able to read books which could help them “meditate and record prayers méete for Christians, and learne the better to obay their Princes and Magistrates” (1570: sig.A.iiijv). A literate public, able to read the Scriptures, are seen as essential to a Christian commonwealth. It should be noted at this point that religion and politics in the Tudor era were different but for most of the time closely interrelated and inseparable.

All of these contribute to the complexity of the texts, and a full understanding and interpretation of them requires much historical contextualisation. When these points are considered in comparison with Hart’s contemporaries, i.e. Thomas Smith, William Bullokar, and Richard Mulcaster, the issue becomes even more complex. Hart’s religio-political conceptualisation of orthographic reform constitutes the salient feature of his linguistic discourse. In Hart’s eyes, orthographic reform was not only likened to but also seen as part of the ideal and practice of religio-political reforms under the Tudor governments. For Hart, politics serves more than merely as a context in which his ideas about language were engendered; it is, more importantly, also the underpinning model and supporting framework of his system of linguistic thought. A close text analysis of Hart’s works shows that his religio-political conceptualisations of orthographic reform are (at least) threefold: First, the program was motivated by both religious and secular needs: the pushing-through of religious reform and the strengthening of central government. Second, the technical aspects of orthography—the constituent elements, internal structure, and governing forces—were modelled on social facts and political theories. Third, the ideology of reform was wrapped up with political rhetoric borrowed from commonwealth literature. In brief, Hart’s scholarly cause can be tersely summarised as constructing a linguistic commonwealth of orthography, which was modelled on the ideology and rhetoric of creating a religio-political commonwealth in Tudor England.

In the existing literature, Hart’s writings are predominantly read and analysed from purely technical perspectives, having been used, for instance, as materials for reconstructing English pronunciation in the Tudor period or tracing the history of phonetic studies in early modern England. While these studies have achieved a great deal in making Hart’s linguistic scholarship visible in modern academia, they seldom provide much specific information on the political background, let alone investigate how Hart spells out in terms of Tudor politics the technical aspects of orthography and the necessity of orthographic reform. By foregrounding the religio-political dimension, I developed a doctoral project (10/2014–09/2018), aiming to cast a new light on the understanding of Hart’s linguistic ideas.


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How to cite this post

Ma, Andrew Ji. 2019. John Hart and the Beginning of English Linguistics in Tudor England. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 16th century, Article, Linguistics

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