THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Each chapter in this book will deal with language myths that have helped to construct the history of the English language ideologically. Some of them have a long history and either return from time to time to help drive an
ideological discourse, or have remained fairly steady over the course of centuries. Older and more lasting myths will be introduced in chapter 5. Other myths, however, are the product of the late-nineteenth-century ideology of standard English as the only legitimate form of language.
In chapter 2, I introduce the myth of the longevity of English, which can be conveniently split into two kinds of story. On the one hand, we have the myth of the ancient language, in which English is constructed as having a very long history, in some cases well before the migration of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to England in the fifth century. On the other hand, a second story strand connected to the notion of longevity is the myth of the unbroken tradition, which will be the subject of the third chapter.
The myth of the ancient language is illustrated here with two quotations, one from Trench (1855) and the other from Kington-Oliphant (1878). In discussing the disappearance of reduplication in the formation of the preterite of strong verbs, Trench (1881: 267) implies that the beginnings of Old English go well back into the past beyond the written evidence that we possess: “From our Old English [reduplication] had died out, leaving the very faintest traces behind it, long before the times which come within the scope of our vision.” Trench only implies longevity, but Kington-Oliphant goes so far as to suggest that the Beowulf text reaches as far back as the fifth century or even beyond:
In the Fifth Century our brethren overran Spain, Gaul, and Italy; becoming lords of the soil, and overlaying with their own words the old Latin dialects spoken in those provinces. To this time belongs the Beowulf, which is to us English (may I not say, to all Teutons?) what the Iliad was to the Greeks. The old Epic, written on the mainland, sets before us the doughty deeds of an Englishman, before his tribe had come to Britain. There is an unmistakable Pagan ring about the poem; and a Christian transcriber, hundreds of years afterwards, has sought to soften down this spirit, which runs through the recital of the feats of Ecgtheow’s bairn. (Kington-Oliphant 1878: 18)
As we will see in chapter 2, there is no evidence at all to suggest a later date for Beowulf than the first decade of the eleventh century.
Chapter 3 tackles the second part of the myth of the longevity of English, the myth of the unbroken tradition. Most histories of English from the nineteenth almost up to the end of the twentieth century assume that there is an unbroken tradition of English stretching from Beowulf and beyond as far as the present. An unbroken tradition assumes not only that there is an uninterrupted record of texts for this period of time, but also that it is legitimate to refer to Old English as “English”. To make my position absolutely clear, I shall follow James Milroy (2002) in considering the language before the Norman Conquest to be so different from what followed as to challenge this legitimacy. I shall henceforth talk of Anglo-Saxon rather than Old English. The thrust of chapter 3, however, is to deconstruct this myth by showing how the last set of Anglo-Saxon texts, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle(s), represents a break in the sociopolitical archive following the Norman Conquest, whereas the “new” archive made use of Latin and Anglo-Norman French.
This is then juxtaposed in chapter 4 to a linguistically driven demonstration that change from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English was well under way in the early eleventh century and that what emerged in the late twelfth century was not a creole, but rather the normal development of several instances of analogical levelling with the constraint of a written language removed. The myth that needs to be deconstructed in this chapter is the modern myth of the creolisation of English.
The focus in chapter 5 shifts to the localisation and critical discussion of a whole cluster of related myths that reach back at least as far as the twelfth century, if not further. Most of these myths are by no means restricted to English, although one of them, the myth of the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North most certainly is. The underlying myth in this cluster is the myth of homogeneity.
Chapter 6 looks at the myth of “greatness”, in which the lexeme great evokes such abstract notions as “remarkability”, “power”, “influence”, “enthusiasm”, and so on. At the centre of this chapter is the Great Vowel Shift, which functions conveniently to construct a dividing line between Middle English and Modern English. The division makes sense only from the point of view of the periodisation of English, which, in its turn, serves the purpose of separating modern from medieval literature and helps to construct a standard form of the language in opposition to dialectal forms. One might say that it is after the Great Vowel Shift—which, I argue, did not in reality exist—that the narrow neck of the funnel is reached and all thought of following up on the histories of other forms of English and the emergence of new varieties is closed off. In linguistic terms, vowel shifts are an inherent feature of English. They are still occurring today, and they occurred prior to the Great Vowel Shift.
I return to modern myths in chapter 7, in which I am concerned not so much to outline any specific myth but to raise an awareness of the strong possibility of Swift’s A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue being taken as the watershed of a further potential myth. Swift’s Proposal is the quintessential example of the Milroys’ complaint tradition and is generally accepted by most scholars as representing a genuine complaint, addressed to the Earl of Oxford, about declining standards of English and the need to introduce a language academy. However, I argue that this analysis of the Proposal does not take full account of Swift’s ubiquitous satire. It also ignores the wider sociocultural and sociopolitical framework in which the text was published. I shall give a detailed analysis of the Proposal, taking account of that framework, to establish an alternative reading of it that, at least potentially, places it alongside other satirical texts. If this interpretation holds its own against the canonical interpretation, it releases the Proposal from the simple function of a genuine complaint about English and opens it up for more interesting interpretative possibilities, which do not radically effect the Milroys’ argument but tend to add greater force to it. The overall message of this chapter is that commentators should take more trouble to read carefully the central texts from which they derive their arguments, since, by doing so, myths concerning the degeneration of the standard language after a mythical Golden Age can be highlighted and deconstructed more forcefully.
In chapter 8 I restate arguments that I have made elsewhere that the development of the ideology of the standard language in the eighteenth century can be seen as a wider and socially more significant ideology of “politeness”. The argument links social standards of “politeness”, as this concept is interpreted in eighteenth-century terms, to the commercial interests of a relatively small group of writers and entrepreneurs in the middling orders of society in the second half of the eighteenth century. It draws on work done on the lucrative publishing market in English grammars in this period, and it argues that the ideology of prescriptivism was, at base, driven by commercial interests. At the same time, it helped to establish linguistic distinctions between the middle and upper classes of society and the working classes and the destitute in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution. The myth presented in this chapter is the myth of the polite language, and deconstructing it is essential if we wish to take full account of commercial, social and political factors in our attempts to unravel the ideologies of language.
Chapter 9 discusses the nineteenth-century transformation of the myth of polite language into the myth of the legitimate language, which effectively discriminates against speakers of other forms of English on an “official” basis—on the basis of the sole acceptance of standard English as the unitary, homogeneous language of the nation-state of Britain. The myth was used to promote an ideology of internal national unity in the nineteenth century in the face of the divisive class struggle exacerbated, although not created, by the Industrial Revolution.
The politicisation of language myths in the post-Second World War era in Britain is dealt with in chapter 10, in which the myth of the legitimate language is transformed, in not so subtle ways, into the myth of the educated language. In both chapters the myths have been and still are used to construct and reproduce the ideology of the standard language.
Chapter 11 tackles the modern myth of English as a global language, and it explicitly takes issue with attempts by linguists and non-linguists alike to construct an ideology in which English is promoted as the “world language”. This myth is particularly in need of deconstruction because it has begun to infiltrate educational language policies in a large number of countries, in which the learning of other languages as a second language is being, or already has been, demoted to second place behind learning English.
The final chapter, chapter 12, takes stock of what has been presented in the book as a whole and returns to the notion of “language myth” as derived from conceptual metaphors of language and as constituting a major factor in shaping discourse ideologies and discourse archives that were constructed in the past and are presently being constructed. The principal argument in this final chapter is that, while it is certainly important to raise an awareness of the mythological underpinnings of language in a reassessment of the history of English language varieties, it is unwise to believe that we can afford to do away with myths entirely. It is even less wise to think that people can be persuaded of the potential dangers of believing in myths.
I began this first chapter by suggesting that human beings have a deep urge to narrate objects, events, beliefs and explanations into being. Myths are not lies, and they are not completely untruths. They are not consciously told to deceive us, but they are part of a long, communally shared cultural tradition by which we try to make sense of the world in which we live by means of the narrated events of the past. My aim is not to create a history of English that is devoid of myths, but one in which those myths that prevent us from having a clearer view of the relationship between the past and the present can be deconstructed. Modern myths underlying ideologies which, deliberately or not, are driven by political agendas ought to be contested rather than blindly accepted, and they need to be looked at with a critical awareness. The myth presented in chapter 2 is a nineteenth-century myth, and deconstructing it offers a route to many stories that are more fascinating than the myth itself. At the centre of the myth is the fascinating text Beowulf and its possible “author”.