The Enlightenment Discourse: A Fiction

Give it up for Samuel Johnson for being maniacal enough to write out the English dictionary. Although some could make the argument that we do, it seems that we do not often question whether our language is fit enough to be considered civilized. It is no surprise that Samuel Johnson prefaced his dictionary as if it were a manifesto ready to civilize the mouths of the English speakers—considering the fact that he is a familiar face of the Enlightenment. Like the other languages of the Western world, English is rooted primarily in Latin, but it also gained influence from other languages that were already fathered by Latin, like French. Johnson takes note of this in page 3 of his book, as he explains how they “had dominions in France.” Interestingly enough, he talks about how church service was ironically still in Latin, while this was going on, which must have created a cacophony of languages and dialects. In other words, English was formed in a crucible of languages, which disturbed people like Johnson who wished to see uniformity in their society.

In retrospect, we can see how the Enlightenment led to colonialism. Concepts like taxonomy and categorization were a solid pedestal where Westerners like the British were able to stand on and cast a gaze on foreigners while taking colonial power. Thomas Babington Macaulay assumes this power way too comfortably in the 19th century when describing “the intrinsic superiority of the Western literature” in his essay “Minute”. Macaulay is writing in response to making English a primary language in India while they were colonizing it, and proudly states he does not know anything about the language but has known enough to make an all-encompassing judgment to render their language inferior. As brutally racist and ignorant as this may be, it is following suit from the bias that Samuel Johnson had for the English language, even though he ironically held it in a lower regard. As Johnson was trying to be objective in describing why he chose to write “entire” rather than “intire” because the latter came from Latin and not French, for example, Johnson reveals that he is actually being subjective and bias. He confuses objectivity with what he strongly believes should dictate the English language, and this shows his dictionary is more a work of his own and NOT the English language. Just as much as Samuel Johnson’s pretenses for what dictates the English language are a FICTION, so are Macaulay’s claims that Western language should dictate the lives of foreigners.

–Cesar R


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