Johnson’s Dictionary and the language of learning

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1 September 2015

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Codification refers to the methods and process by which a language is standardized. These specific methods include the creation and the use of style and language guides, dictionaries and the grammar textbooks. It is important to realize that codification is an ongoing process. The most important period in the codification of English, is the 18th century that was characterized with the publication of hundreds of grammar and dictionary. These included dictionaries such as “Samuel Johnson’s Monumental Dictionary,” in 1755 among other dictionaries (Johnson & Lynch, 2003).

History of English Codification in Dictionary and Grammar books

Codification of English language can be traced back in Britain, in the 18th century. During that time, perspective norms were stipulated by authors such as John Walker and Thomas Sheridan. On the other hand, in the United States, the codification of English was mainly initiated and undertaken by Noah Webster, on an orthographic and lexical level. Britain attributes its present lexicographical work of Samuel Johnson (Hickey, 2011).

When analyzing the English’s recent history, it is important to distinguish between the actual term standard and the notion of standard. It is important to understand that the earliest reference to the term Standard English in the Oxford English dictionary dates back in the year 1836 (Hickey, 2011). Standard English in the codified sense refers to the development of the 18th-century development. There are several reasons as to why the English could have risen then, however, there were precursors to the 18th-century notion of English.

Some researchers argue that the earliest codification of English began in the 16th century via the publication of grammars and dictionaries most of which are intended to teach the English language to the rural squires mainly after the Union Act of 1536 between Wales and England. The Standard English was mainly codified between the 16th and 17th centuries. Ascertaining and improving the English tongue began in 1712, Bishop Lowth’s grammar in 1762 and the Samuel Johnson first appeared in 1755. The codification process was characterized with three main influences which were paramount (Kemmer, 2009).

• The kings English in the form of legal and administrative language.

• Literary English which was in the form of acceptable language that was mainly used by great literature and for the purposes of printing and publishing.

• The English of education and church or commonly referred to as “Oxford English”. There was no point in which the state was involved.

The Codification process also greatly affected the spoken form of the English standard language. The Received Pronunciation was mainly codified through education influence especially that of nineteenth-century public schools, followed from the 20th Century by television, radio and cinema. It is perceived that about 3 to 5 percent of the British tend to speak Received Pronunciation today (Kemmer, 2009).

Commissioning of Dictionaries

The growing use of written language created the need for materials that presented the need for materials that portrayed the aspect of the language, in a way that could be looked up by all the individuals that desired information about the English language. This was initially meant for the non-native speakers, however, later on the English native speakers that wanted to know about the new and developed part of the language also looked for such materials. The initial dictionaries were mainly a list of hard words. This mainly involved, the list of new “loan” words that were from the classical language and the new British colonies overseas. By the eighteenth century, dictionary writing was mainly a recognized activity and the learned men and scholars were being commissioned by various publishers to write such materials (Kemmer, 2009).

Other places in Europe, language academies were being established so as to codify and also normalize all the aspects of the language. However, this trend was not adopted in the English-speaking lands and there was never a recognized academy for standardization in either United States or Britain. The publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which was of the English language was a significant milestone in the development of a dictionary and other reference materials (DeMaria, 1986). The dictionary adopted more or less a descriptivist stance that is very modern and was at odds with the former prescriptive view of the earlier dictionary producers. Johnson recognized change as a normal process and refused to see change as a degeneration (Hitchings, 2005).

By the time the Johnson dictionary was developed, the spelling system was already in place and recognizably the same as that of the modern English with relatively few orthographic peculiarities (Reddick & Johnson, 1990). On the other hand, political independence in the United States led to the push for distinguishing cultural factors. As a result, Noah Webster, came up with a dictionary that contained regional, American based definitions so as to distinguish it from the British English (Kemmer, 2009).

Noah Webster went to the extent of creating his own dictionary which contained some American-dialect definitions. This provides the required orthographic distinction without changing significant mutual intelligibility. He mainly incorporates the use of “ize” instead of “ise” for the verbs and the elimination of suffix u in the suffix “–our” (Kemmer, 2009).

The criteria for including words in the dictionary

Every year, numerous English words and expressions develop and thus the major dictionaries do keep track of such words so as to determine those to add and those that are not acceptable. We are going to analyze how the Oxford dictionary carries out this initiative (Oxford University Press, 2014).

The Oxford University Press has one of the largest and vast languages research program in the world (Oxford University Press, 2014). Their most important resource are the Oxford Reading Programme and the Oxford English Corpus. The Corpus mainly entails documents that have been sourced from the internet whereas the reading program refers to an electronic collection of extracts and quotations mainly drawn from a variety of popular fiction, songwriting and scientific journals (Oxford University Press, 2014). This is mainly based from the contributions of the network of readers based across the globe who are constantly on the lookout for new words and meaning and also other languages.

The Oxford University Press, continually keeps track of the two programs so as to be able to track new words that come into the English language. Upon having evidence that a new term is used by various sources and not just by one individual or writer, the word therefore becomes a candidate for the inclusion into one of the Institution’s dictionaries (Oxford University Press, 2014).

In the previous centuries, most dictionaries were confined to a list of words that most writers thought would be useful, even when there was no proof that individuals had used the words before. It is important to note that this does not work in the same manner in today. Personal inventions are not allowed in the modern dictionaries and only terms that have been utilized for a period of time and by a wide group of people, can be accepted into the dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Distinction between Prescriptive and Descriptive Dictionary

Prescriptivism refers to the enforcement and the assertion of a specific set of rules by an institution or a person. With regards to dictionaries, prescriptivism refers to the situation where the dictionary explains the language rules that should be followed and the norms and usages that should also be avoided (Barrett, 2012). Prescriptions and proscriptions are traditional and generally represent receipt of wisdom. On the other hand, descriptivism in a lexicographical context refers to the language usage and behaviors.

The fact is that basically all the English language dictionaries are descriptive in nature. The main editors always refer to it as recording the language and how the words are spelled and used. Descriptive languages, thus describe the language and include words that are commonly used even those that are non-standard and often include non-standard spelling. Prescriptive dictionaries are more concerned about the standard or correct English. In other words, they prescribe the proper spelling and usage of words (Barrett, 2012).

From the analysis above, it is right to state that the prescriptive dictionaries tend to promote Standard English, unlike the descriptive dictionaries which mainly describe the language.


The paper effectively analyses the codification of English, history of how English was codified in dictionaries and grammar books, reasons why the dictionaries were codified, and criteria used for including words in the dictionary and the extent to which dictionary is considered to be either descriptive or prescriptive.


 Barrett, G. (2012, September). Comparing and Arguing About Dictionaries. Retrieved from Way Word Radio:

DeMaria, R. (1986). Johnson’s Dictionary and the language of learning. Oxford: Clarendon.

Hickey, R. (2011). Standard English and standards of English. 1-31.

Hitchings, H. (2005). Defining the world : the extraordinary story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Johnson, S., & Lynch, J. (2003). Samuel Johnson’s dictionary : selections from the 1755 work that defined the English language. New York: Walker & Co.

Kemmer, S. (2009). The History of English. Retrieved from Rice University:

Oxford University Press. (2014). How do you decide whether a new word should be included in an Oxford dictionary? Retrieved from Oxford Dictionaries:

Reddick, A. H., & Johnson, S. (1990). The making of Johnson’s dictionary, 1746-1773. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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