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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Language myths and the history of English


Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, study of the English language in the tertiary sector of the education system meant the study of what was then called “Anglo-Saxon”. Although Anglo-Saxon was clearly a precursor of English, its structure was so different from that of even postConquest late-medieval English that it could be seen as a different language. In his prologue to Alternative Histories of English, James Milroy makes this point very forcefully:

The standard view of the transition from Old to Middle English is that, although it appears in the texts to be abrupt, it was actually gradual, and this of course backs up the idea of the ancient language and unbroken transmission. Old English, however, is structurally very unlike Modern English or most of Middle English in a number of ways. To show that it is the “same” language on purely internal grounds requires some ingenuity. It is much easier to show that it is different. (2002: 19, emphasis mine)

When Milroy talks of the “idea of the ancient language and unbroken transmission”, he is obliquely referring to the myth of the longevity of English, which, in accordance with Milroy’s own words, can be divided into two ideological components, the myth of the ancient language and the myth of the unbroken tradition. He argues that the longevity myth depends on the linguistic ingenuity of scholars of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) to trace an unbroken transmission from Old to Middle English. Milroy’s argument can be expanded by showing, as I do in the present chapter, that although all existing manuscripts theoretically contribute to the construction of the longevity myth certain texts of an assumed literary value, like Beowulf, are given priority in the demonstration of the transmission of Anglo-Saxon from the fifth century ad onward.[1] In this chapter I deal more specifically with the myth of the ancient language, and in chapter 3 I focus on the second ideological strand in the longevity myth, the myth of the unbroken tradition, which more specifically concerns the “transition period” between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

Myths are constructed as part of naturalised forms of discourse, and naturalised forms of discourse generate Foucault’s notion of the archive. As we saw in chapter 1, they have a narrative structure, are essentially fictive and are centred on characters and events whose historical existence is assumed to be highly probable or beyond doubt. They thus contain elements of reality since they are derived from the shared experiences of a community, and they are produced, reproduced and transformed socially. The essence of a myth is that it presents a discursive point, or set of discursive points, at which an individual can identify with a common history and shared heritage.

Myths are constructed discursively to justify present actions and beliefs as being “historically” based—despite their essentially fictive nature. In this sense they are in the possession of a community as a whole and not of individuals in that community. In Watts (1999a), I suggest that myths emerge at times that are favourable to their acceptance in and reproduction by the community. The concept of time I am using here is taken from Fernand Braudel’s work (1949, 1980), in which he distinguishes between at least three time scales layered one over the other: la longue duree (the slow, relentless, endless progress of time over which we, as human beings, have no control); le temps conjoncturel (the inevitable cyclic rise and fall of human institutions); and I’evenement, or event time (time that covers events in an individual’s life but may extend beyond the events themselves and is measured against the time span, hopes, experiences, or dreams of individuals). “Conjunctural” time (le temps conjoncturel) refers to specific periods along the longue duree at which certain significant historical factors come together. The medieval concept of time/history was cyclic rather than linear, and this will form part of my argument for a change in the discourse archive represented by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in chapter 3. The Greeks used the term kairos to refer such periods in time, and it is at those “kairotic” moments that certain discursive strands may come together to help construct a myth.

My argument in this chapter is that the myth of the ancient language was discursively constructed from around 1830 to well into the twentieth century. We can interpret this period as the kairotic, or conjunctural, period of time at which the myth was able to emerge. It occurred at an important cyclic convergence of a number of significant elements in British history. Crowley (2003) deals extensively with this period of linguistic thought in Britain, though without mentioning either conjunctural/kairotic time or the term “myth”. So I will not go into great detail here. The central part of his argument concerns the genesis of the New English Dictionary (which later became the Oxford English Dictionary) . The compilers of the dictionary considered only the “best” texts as sources for the words they wished to include in the dictionary, and, as we might expect, the “best texts” were literary (Crowley 2003).

Now, while one can sympathise with this tendency in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are sound reasons to reject reliance on the “best texts” at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. In addition, the compilers of the New English Dictionary were acutely aware of the need to set a chronological cutoff date for what could be considered “English”.[2]

In their Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary (1857), they defined the “rise” of English as occurring around the year 1250, although words in the language that could be traced back etymologically to the Anglo-Saxon period were recorded as having a longer history. The period during which “Anglo-Saxon” was discursively transformed into “Old English” was the latter half of the nineteenth century, although the term “Old English” was also used sporadically by the compilers of the New English Dictionary before then.

What were the driving forces that gave rise to the myth of the ancient language? The major nonlinguistic impetus towards its construction was the blatant contrast between, on the one hand, social inequality in Britain separating the country into Disraeli’s “two nations”, the wealthy to immensely wealthy upper-middle and aristocratic classes and the at times poverty-stricken working classes and, on the other hand, the rapid social and economic transformations created by the second stage of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a colonial empire (cf. chap. 9). Squeezed between these two social classes was the rising and rapidly expanding middle class (or what Langford 1989 aptly calls “the middling orders of society”) bent on assimilation into the upper end of the social scale rather than on sociopolitical solidarity with the working classes.

The late 1830s witnessed the emergence of Chartism, a proto-working- class movement campaigning for better working conditions, access to education and the right to vote. At the end of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, the sense of class solidarity among unskilled and manual wage earners and their frequently violent protests in an effort to achieve those (and other) basic human rights created unparalleled social unrest throughout Britain. The government answered these protests with repressive and sometimes violent measures that did nothing to alleviate working-class dissatisfaction (cf. chap. 9).

We can thus interpret the development of the myth of the ancient language as part of a general linguistic reflex to the extreme anxiety in the upper and middling levels of the social hierarchy created by Chartism. The myth congealed around the need to provide some sort of answer to the wide and explosive social gulf between the new working classes and other social levels. If anything could bridge this gulf, it was an extension of the voting franchise, education for all and the development of a feeling of national patriotism. Of these three “solutions,” the third was obviously more easily achievable than the other two, given the class tensions that divided the country socially, and, from an economic point of view, was far cheaper. Crowley (2003) points out that the two driving forces behind the implementation of the third solution were religion and language.

Part of the answer lay in diverting the focus of unrest in the underprivileged classes of society away from the demand for parliamentary reform, universal suffrage and better working conditions by promoting a sense of national patriotism. As the nineteenth century wore on, the idea that Britain had emerged preeminent among the nations as a global imperial power was used as a counter to social unrest. The notion of a “national language”, which was soon to be transformed into the concept of an “imperial language”, provided symbolic support for the historic consciousness of a strong nation-state whose roots could be traced back through time. If the “British state” could be traced back to pre-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon times, then the “national language” must have existed at that time too. An imperial power needed a unifying, unchanging, standardised imperial language that could be exported to the colonies and dominions as a material commodity and promoted as a carrier of the values of Western civilisation. It needed a language with an unbroken history alongside a history of coherent national development. It also needed a language that could boast a literary tradition, since in that way language could be seen as a cultural product on a par with cultural achievements such as law, art, education, religion and science.

At this point I invoke the modern German term Kultursprache, for which there is no adequate translation in English.[3] It implies a connection between language and cultural “achievements” closely related to or even created through the language concerned, and it often occurs in close collocation with the term “literature” (e.g. “Literatur- und Kultursprache”). An equivalent term used during the “long” nineteenth century in the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was historische Sprache (historical language), which neatly links the nineteenth-century preoccupation with history to the later-twentieth-century preoccupation with “culture”.

German as a “historical language” was frequently invoked by Austrian politicians as a justification for its imposition as the language of the administration and education in non-German-speaking parts of the empire (see Rosita Rindler-Schjerve 2003). A “historical language”, or its modern equivalent, Kultursprache, is a written language with a significant body of written texts, both fictional and nonfictional, literary and nonliterary. Vetter (2003) suggests that German was frequently promoted as the language of science, as the language that was meant to unify the empire and as its dominant literary language. Her arguments can be transferred almost one-to-one to refer to the development of the “English as the imperial language” discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain.

The Kultursprachel“historical language” ideology promotes the dominance of one language variety over others. It is imposed through specific media, first and foremost the education system, but also by the press from the eighteenth century on and in the twentieth century the broadcast media, radio and television. At least since the eighteenth century, standard English has also been imbued with the same aura of cultural dominance over nonstandard varieties of English (and also over Irish, Welsh, and Scots Gaelic). In this sense, English is also a Kultursprache/“historical language”, as we shall see in chapters 8 to 10. For the moment, however, we need to discuss how the Beowulf text came to be separated from its manuscript representation and reified as an object of the “historical language” discourse to play a prominent role in the ancient language myth.

  • [1] Cf. the quotation from Kington-Oliphant (1878) in chapter 1.
  • [2] In the “General Explanations” to the proposed dictionary, the date was set much earlier, at 1150, andthe original suggestion was to exclude all words “that had become obsolete” prior to that date.
  • [3] The Wildhagen German-English dictionary (1972) does not even give a translation. The online dictionary german-english glosses the term into English as “language of a civilized people” (, which then forces us to define how we understand the term “civilizedpeople”. Vetter (2003: 282) uses the English expression “language of significant cultural heritage”. Cf. the useof the term Kultursprache in chapter 5.
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