Local and peripheral myths
Two myths in Higden’s text—the climate/soil myth and the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth—can be said to be local, and hence peripheral. In considering the ideologies driven by these myths in England itself, however, they are pivotal. The climate/soil myth is also derived from a conceptual metaphor discussed in chapter 1: A language is a plant. We shall see it used in Swift’s Proposal, although there is evidence from Swift’s text that he uses it satirically. Even so, the fact that Swift can be interpreted as satirising the myth is itself evidence of its popularity, and it may still be heard in nonlinguistic circles to explain a supposed difficulty in learning and lack of aesthetic attraction of languages containing complex consonant clusters or velar, uvular and pharyngeal affricates.
The pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth is as alive today as it was in William of Malmesbury’s time although it is not easy to find explicit references to the myth in written sources. In my own data corpus of family discourse, I have located an interesting reference made by one of the participants in a conversation about the use of discourse markers such as well, you know, like, anyway, and so on to the effect that like and you know are expressions used in the North—which is blatantly false, as they are used just as frequently throughout Britain. Needless to say, the participants were all from the South, and their evaluation of the use of these elements by “northerners” was uniformly negative (see Watts 1989). Wales (2006) has written a social and cultural history of northern English in which she argues that the myth is actually part of a general North-South cultural divide structured from the perspective of southerners, in which aspects of the North are represented in negative terms in opposition to the positive evaluations of the South:
This book will also reveal how the polarity between Northern English and Southern English is also intertwined with a deep-rooted cultural opposition between the North and the South, comprising a mish-mash of mythologies of Northernness accrued in different phases of the North’s history. . . . Basic even to this cultural opposition is a more pervasive semiotic of a North-South divide based on temperature: consider phrases like “the frozen North” or “the warm South”. (25)
The semiotic extends to such oppositions as wealth (South) versus poverty (North), agriculturalism (South) versus pastoralism (North), and industrialisation (North) versus commerce (South). Wales (2006: 25) also mentions that “the weather, and the mists from the Irish Sea, are popularly believed to account for the adenoidal quality of the Scouse [Liverpool] accent”.
-  I have even heard it used by speakers of standard German, nota bene linguists, to explain theexistence of affricates and consonant clusters in the Swiss German dialects. I might add that there was also ahint of the barbarians myth associated with this evaluation.