Three later myths of the sixteenth century

The pure language mythbecomes properly active at the very beginning of the move towards the creation of a standard at the end of the sixteenth century. At roughly the same time, two other closely related myths appear based on “true” statements derived from the conceptual metaphor A language is a human being:

  • 1. , with a heritage>, from which we can trace the myth of the superiority of English, and
  • 2. , guage has no blemish>, from which we can trace the myth of the perfect language.

The first realisation of the pure language myth is to be found in book 3, chapter 4, of George Puttenham’s The Arte ofEnglish Poesie (1588), titled “Of Language”, although, as is usual in the late medieval and early modern periods, Puttenham might very well have taken over or “translated” his ideas from previous texts. Puttenham describes the language to which budding poets should aspire as follows:

Neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferior sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and Citie in this Realme, for such persons doe abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill shapen soundes, and false ortographie. But he shall follow generally the better brought vp sort, such as the Greeks call [charientes] men ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred. Our maker therfore at these dayes shall not follow Piers Plowman nor Gower nor Lydgate nor yet Chaucer, for their language is now out of vse with vs: neither shall he take the termes of Northern-men, such as they vse in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentlemen, or of their best clarkes all is a matter: nor in effect any speach vsed beyond the riuer of Trent, though no man can deny but that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne English is, no more is the far Westerne mans speech: ye shall therfore take the vsuall speech of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles, and not much aboue. I say not this but that in euery shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of euery shire, to whom the gentlemen, and also their learned clarkes do for the most part condescend, but herein we are already ruled by th’English Dictionaries and other bookes written by learned men, and therefore it needeth none other than direction in that behalfe. Albeit peraduenture some small admonition be not impertinent, for we finde in our English writers many wordes and speaches amendable, & ye shall see in some many inkhorne termes so ill affected brought in by men of learning as preachers and schoolemasters: and many straunge termes of other languages by Secretaries and Marchaunts and trauailors, and many dark wordes and not vsuall nor well sounding though they be dayly spoken in Court.

The pure language that Puttenham holds up as the model to be followed by writers is “the vsuall speech of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles, and not much aboue”.

The superiority of English myth extols the superiority of English above all other languages. Superiority is generally located in a number of characteristics ascribing greater beauty, greater logical powers of expression, greater nobility, greater simplicity of expression and greater variety. It can be traced back to the following section of the extract from Higden’s Polychronicon quoted above:

Ubi nempe mirandem videtur, quomodo nativa etpropria Anglorum lingua, in unica insula coartata, pronunciatione ipsa sit tam diversa; cum tamen Normannica lingua, qux adventitia est, univoca maneatpenes cunctos.

[When surely it is seen as a wonder how the true and native language of the English, compressed within one island, is so diverse in its very pronunciation; the Norman language, however, which has been brought here, retains the one sound with all.]

Higden characterises this variety as a “wonder”, but like Caxton’s story of the eggs in the preface to the Eneidos, it is unclear whether this attribute is meant to be understood as a positive, negative, or simply a neutral evaluation of the “facts”.

A positive evaluation is given by Richard Carew in his essay “An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the English Tongue”, which appeared in 1605 in the first edition of William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain. I quote from a publication of Carew’s The Svrvey of Cornwall. And An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the English Tongue in 1769:

Moreover the copiousness of our Language appeareth in the diversity of our Dialects, for we have Court and we have Countrey English, we have Northern and Southern English, gross and ordinary, which differ from each other, not only in the terminations, but also in many words, terms, and phrases, and express the same thing in divers sorts, yet all write English alike. (1769: 11)

Carew’s passage was taken over almost word for word, or, using today’s terminology, plagiarised, by Guy Miege (a Huguenot refugee from Lausanne in Switzerland) in his English Grammar; or the Grounds and Genius of the English Tongue in 1688 and then again by Victor Peyton in his Elements of the English Language in 1779.

The perfection mythis represented in a text by William Harrison titled “On the languages spoken in this land” in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577):

Afterward also, by diligent travel of Geffray Chaucer, and John Gower, in the time of Richard the second, and after then Iohn Scogan, and John Lydgate, monke of Berrie, our said toong was brought to an excellent passe, notwithstanding that it neuer came vnto perfection, vntill the time of Queen Elizabeth. ([1577] 1965: 25)

In the centuries to follow, the reign of Queen Elizabeth was taken by several commentators on language to be the Golden Age of English, and this notion is expressed by Swift in his A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue, as we shall see in chapter 7.

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