Scanning the shelves of the stacks in the London Library, I came across a number of books, or tracts as they are called, of the Society for Pure English. The Society was founded in 1913; its founder members included poet laureate Robert Bridges, Henry Bradley, who was James Murray's successor as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Sir Walter Raleigh, professor of English literature at Oxford University. It had many other eminent members, including the lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler and the writers Thomas Hardy, Edmund Gosse, Hugh Walpole and Edith Wharton. The Society hadn't been going long when the First World War started, and so its activities were suspended until after the Armistice in 1918. It published its first two tracts in 1919, the first being Preliminary Announcement and List of Members and the second On English Homophones, written by Robert Bridges.
The Society's founders undertook to produce a series of tracts on the English language, and what they considered its decline. They bemoaned the fact that "Literary education ... does not inspire writers with a due sense of responsibility towards their native speech". They also say: "In most European countries men of letters, and the better class of journalists, are trained to observe the changes of the language, and to assist consciously in its development, being guided by acknowledged principles of tradition and taste. But the English language, which is now rapidly spreading over the world, is subject to no such guidance, and to very little intelligent criticism." Discussion of choice of words and standards of style, they say, is "mostly conducted by irresponsible persons, who have no knowledge of the history of English,[...]". The Society should "agree upon a modest and practical scheme for informing popular taste on sound principles, for guiding educational authorities, and for introducing into practice certain slight modifications and advantageous changes."
The Society's aims were to preserve "all the richness of differentiation in our vocabulary, its nice grammatical usages, its traditional idioms, and the music of its inherited pronunciation: it would oppose whatever is slipshod and careless, and all blurring of hard-won distinctions, but it would no less oppose the tyranny of schoolmasters and grammarians, both in their pedantic conservatism, and in their ignorant enforcing of newfangled 'rules', based not on principle, but merely on what has come to be considered 'correct' usage. The ideal of the Society is that our language in its future development should be controlled by the forces and processes which have formed it in the past, that it should keep its English character, and that the new elements added to it should be in harmony with the old;[...]".
The Society objected, not to foreign words entering English, but to their foreign spellings and original pronunciations being kept. The members wanted to assimilate such words and "give an English pronunciation and spelling to useful foreign words". The foreign-word-importing culprits were, in the Society's view, science writers, so they asked for help in coining English-sounding words: "We would therefore encourage those who possess the word-making faculty to exercise it freely." They went on to explain what they meant: "We shall often do better by inquiring, for instance, not what name the inventor gave to his new machine, but what it is called by the workmen who handle it; and in adopting their homespun terms and giving them literary currency, we shall help to preserve the living and popular character of our speech."
Unlike many modern-day language purists and prescriptivists, the Society approved of regional dialects: "The present spread of education, and the enforcement of a uniform and town-bred standard of speech throughout the schools of the country, is destroying dialects and local forms with great rapidity. These have been studied by specialists, and their value is fully recognized, but the attitude of the educated classes towards them is still contemptuous or indifferent. This ignorant contempt is to be regretted for many reasons. Not only is some knowledge of dialects needful for any true understanding of the history and character of our language, but the standard speech has in the past derived much enrichment and what is called 'regeneration' from the picturesque vocabularies of local vernaculars. The drying-up of these sources cannot but be regarded as a misfortune... We also believe that a knowledge of provincial pronunciation, and a familiarity with the richness and beauty of the vowel sounds which it often preserves, especially in the north, would be of value to those who speak the standard language, and would certainly lead to some correction of the slurred and indistinct way of speaking which is now regarded as correct English, and deliberately taught as such on the Continent." Dialect or disappearing words that are specifically mentioned in the tract include bide, dight (= to direct), blithe, malison (= curse, malediction), thole (= pin in the side of a boat), nesh (= tender or lacking courage), lew (= warm and sunny), mense (= decorum), foison (= abundance), fash (= vexation, bother) and douce (= sober, steady).
The Society said they had "no present intention of engaging in the vexed question of the illogical and often absurd orthography of English".
Anyone interested could become a member of the Society for Pure English. The idea was that members should promote the ideas of the Society and, ideally, recruit new members. Members were urged to help "by collecting words from popular speech, which are in their opinion worthy of a larger currency; they can use them themselves and call the attention of their friends to them[...]".There were no subscriptions, but the Society welcomed donations: "In the place of a small subscription, which it is as inconvenient regularly to collect as it is to pay, the secretary invites donations of any amount, great or small,[...]".