The myth of "greatness"

Neither can any Tongue, as I am perswaded, deliver a Matter with more Variety than ours, both plainly, and by Proverbes and Metaphors.

—Richard Carew, An Epistle concerning the Excellencies

of the English Tongue, 1605

INTRODUCTION

In chapters 2 and 3, I argued that the commonly held assumption that the history of English represents an unbroken line between Old English (Anglo- Saxon) through Middle English and Early Modern English to Modern English is the product of two linguistic myths that arose in the nineteenth century and have persisted in textbooks on the history of English down to the present: the ancient language myth and the unbroken tradition myth. Such a presentation of the periodisation of English is focused on the emergence of standard English and automatically cancels out any alternative efforts to tell the stories of other varieties. It ultimately derives from the central myth of the homogeneity of language, society, and culture, and as such has no truck with heterogeneity and variability.

In this chapter, I turn my attention to a myth which, like the ancient language myth and the unbroken tradition myth, also forms part of the cluster of

This chapter is a reworking and revision of my contribution to the book English Core Linguistics: Essays in Honour of D. J. Allerton (2003) edited by Cornelia Tschichold.

myths circling around the linguistic homogeneity myth, the myth of greatness. All three myths are derived from the superiority of English myth, as we saw in the previous chapter. Modifying a noun with the adjective “great” in English prompts for a range of meanings that only marginally include the cognitive concept of large size. “Great” can also prompt for concepts such as remark- ability, excellence, power, influence, enthusiasm, and so on. There is always a sense of uniqueness, of grandiose proportions and perhaps even of historical significance associated with the term, which allows it to be used in the context of the nation-state to refer to events, institutions, objects, and so on that are infused with a mythical aura of superiority in comparison with similar events, institutions and objects in other nation-states. Within the framework of the industrial age in the nineteenth century, in which the concept of the nation-state was at its height, such expressions as the “Great Western Railway” or the “Great North Road” were meant to inspire stories of national achievement and admiration.

Outside the mythical sphere of the nation-state, “great” can still be used to refer to remarkable objects or events such as the “Great Wall of China”, the “Great War”, or the “Great Trek”, which also inspire awe and admiration. And, obviously, it can be used ironically, as in expressions like the “Great Train Robbery”, or—possibly familiar in linguistic circles—Geoffrey Pullum’s expression the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, used as the title of a collection of brilliant satirical squibs written by him for the journal Natural Language and Linguistics. The cognitive sense of the lexeme great in these last two instances is clearly that of remarkability.

The greatness myth has also been projected onto national languages as the official languages of nation-states, as an integral component of what is assumed to make those nation-states more influential, powerful and admirable than others. English is definitely not immune to this myth. On the other hand, the only case in which historians of the language have explicitly had recourse to the epithet “great” as an integral part of their terminology is in the expression “the Great Vowel Shift” (GVS), and it is with the deconstruction of this term that i shall be concerned in this chapter. The interpretation of the mythical import of the GVS is that it is used as a convenient major watershed between the hypothesised periods in the assumed history of English referred to as “Middle English” and “Early Modern English”, and the deconstruction of this watershed is part of an attempt to demystify the significance of the vowel shift itself.

I shall not focus on what might have caused the vowel shift to occur nor on the merits or demerits of the drag-chain and push-chain accounts of the phenomenon of vowel shifting in general, although these problems are central to any theory of phonological variation and change. instead, i shall focus on the disputes revolving around the GVS, which primarily concern its dating, and i shall touch on the linguistic processes involved in the development of the GVS. The major question here is whether the GVS can be properly seen as a unitary phenomenon.

Linguistic disputes on the processes involved in vowel shifting and, in particular, on whether the GVS may be seen as a unitary phenomenon are, of course, not unimportant. In this chapter, however, my focus is different: I wish to reconstruct the ideological discourse of the GVS to show that a series of smaller vowel shifts took place at different times in different parts of the country, and that there were certain geographical areas in which some (or even many) of those shifts did not take place at all. If my arguments are valid, we have a strong justification for looking at language change on a more local level—that is, for looking at language history from below rather than from above. My point is that the tradition of presenting the GVS as one “great” unitary phenomenon constitutes another ideology naturalised within the discourse of “the history of the language” (cf. Alexander Ellis 1869; Henry Sweet [1873-74] 1888), and, as we saw in chapter 1, myths are a major component driving all forms of ideological discourse.

 
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