The central myths
I use the term “central myth” to indicate a myth that is either directly derivable from the “true” statements generated from the conceptual metaphor or is commonly held with respect to a wide range of languages (see Grillo 1989). As we saw in section 4, the etymology of barbarian is closely related to language insofar as barbarians (foreigners or Others) are said not to have an intelligible language. An unintelligible language is one that is not legitimate, one that is thus not a “proper” language. The “true” statement with a blemish is imperfect> is derived from running the metaphorical blend and can be used to refer to Other’s language. It is also applicable to the language of the North, as we shall see in the next subsection.
If the language of the barbarians has some form of moral blemish, it can also be said to be contaminated, and should therefore be avoided; language contact is not advisable. At the same time, the language is also corrupt, and this reflects the corrupt nature of the barbarians themselves. We can easily see how the barbarians myth can be extended to refer to groups of individuals who are within the community supposedly encompassed by the nation state. Milroy (2007: 137) gives the following quotation from a school inspector in 1925:
figure 5.1. The cognitive sources of Higden’s myths
Come into a London elementary school and . . . [and] you will notice that the boys and girls are almost inarticulate. They can make noises, but they cannot
speak____Listen to them as they “play at schools”; you can barely recognise your
Although the expression “barbarians” is not used explicitly by the school inspector, his comments lie squarely within the discourse of the barbarians myth.
Related to this myth is the contamination through contact myth, which is more salient in Higden’s text than is the myth of the barbarians. The two
“true” statements derived from the conceptual metaphor—language is a carrier of disease> and avoided>—can be run as the central pillars of the contamination through contact myth. Any language other than the “pure language” must be imperfect, a possible bearer of disease to the “pure language”, and the only way to prevent this from happening is to avoid contact with it. Indirectly, of course, this includes the language of barbarians, since, as we have seen, their language is not proper. Similarly, the “true” statement has caught a disease>, which may of course refer to the infected state of the “pure language,” which then has to undergo treatment to cure it, also feeds into the contamination through contact myth. The “true” statements derived from the central metaphor on the right-hand side of figure 5.1 refer to the moral qualities of a language, but these also feed into the language contact myth, particularly the statements languages> and , in which the attribution of moral failings assigned to the Other’s language, by running the blend, endangers the speakers of the “pure” language through language contact. The interesting feature about the contamination through contact mythis that it also contributes a rationale for the construction of the local myth disparaging the English used in the north of England.
The third and possibly the most central myth in Higden’s text is the pure language myth. It is central because, through it, Higden creates the impression that Anglo-Norman French is in some sense more homogeneous than English, which is looked at in an altogether more ambiguous way. There are speakers who still speak English “purely”, but there are equally speakers who are equivalent to barbarians. The idea of a pure, or perfect, language is supported exclusively by running the “true” statements attributing moral character to language rather than physical attributes, and it will be a central concern in my deconstruction of Swift’s Proposal presented in chapter 7, and also in chapters 8, 9 and 10. Although Higden does not express this idea in his text, the statement will constitute a fundamental rationale for the development of “standard English” through the notion of politeness, as shown in chapter 8. For this reason I have represented the line between the blend and the pure language myth as a dotted line in figure 5.1. The idea of a morally pure language being a perfect language most definitely feeds into the construction of the myth.