DATING THE GVS

The period during which the GVS is canonically assumed to have taken place covers almost 300 years from the early fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, although most commentators restrict this period even further so that the GVS simply lies between the time of Chaucer and that of Shakespeare (Jespersen 1933; Barber 1976; Wells 1982; Claiborne 1983; Nixon & Honey 1988; Freeborn 1992; Macaulay 1994; Smith 1996; Campbell 2004; van Lier 2004; Nevalainen 2006).1 The second of these two dates is interesting inasmuch as it is only in the last 40 years of the eighteenth century that we see attempts to construct and prescribe a standard oral language, evident in, for example, Thomas Sheridan’s A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762) and John Walker’s Elements of Elocution (1781) and A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).[1] [2] The latter part of the nineteenth century and the first 25 years of the twentieth century saw concerted efforts to locate that oral standard socially (see Wyld 1906, 1913; Jones 1909, 1917). The legacy of those efforts is the continued drive towards the homogenisation of oral English, a homogenisation that haunts the requirement written into the current National Curriculum for English that pupils be given access to standard oral English. As Bex and Watts point out in Standard English: The Widening Debate (1999: 116), “To teach standard spoken English requires that we take on the task of showing what it is”. This has never been adequately done, and I suggest that this is because it cannot be done.[3]

Let us now consider the first of the two dates marking the presumed beginning of the GVS, the early fifteenth century. Giancarlo (2001) argues that this date allows us to construct a convenient borderline between the outgoing Middle Ages as represented by the literary genius of Chaucer and the period of early modern English as represented by Shakespeare. It allows us to claim Shakespeare as “one of us” and, while not disclaiming Chaucer’s greatness, to place him into the camp of those who did not speak English as we do. Such a demarcation allows us to define the language of Shakespeare as “early modern English” and to locate the “true” beginning of standard English at the end of the sixteenth century. Giancarlo’s argument thus supports my interpretation of the discursive ideology of the “history of the language” built on a nexus of myths associated with the linguistic homogeneity myth such as those dealt with in the previous chapter. It provides evidence that the “funnel view” of the history of English focuses narrowly on the development of standard English to the detriment of the dialects, creoles and other colonial varieties. As Milroy (2002) astutely points out, the ideology works towards the exclusion of viewing the historical development of varieties of English in relation to its Germanic neighbours.

The traditional accounts of the GVS have not gone unchallenged. The work of deconstructing the greatness myth underlying the term “Great Vowel Shift” was begun in the 1980s by Stockwell and Minkova (1988a , 1988b, 1990, 1997), and it has been continued by a number of important articles in the 1990s (notably, Johnston 1992; J. Smith 1993; and Guzman 19941. The most detailed of these is Johnston’s article, which gives well- documented evidence to suggest that, in the Plain of York, low-vowel raising preceded not only the chain shift in the long high vowels, but that it also preceded Open Syllable Lengthening itself in the thirteenth century—per- haps even earlier.

If we are interested in researching into how the traditional discourse of “the history of the language” has been constructed, the fundamental question of what the GVS was and how it should be deconstructed loses none of its compulsive power.[4]

  • [1] Claiborne (1983) and van Lier (2004) even restrict it to the sixteenth century, but at least Nixon andHoney suggest that the dating they give, which is similar to all the other datings in the works referred to here,has been challenged. Other linguists who discuss the GVS are prudent enough to avoid stating any time periods(cf., e.g., Labov 1994 and van Gelderen 2006).
  • [2] George Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589; book 3, chap. 4, “Of Language”), was certainly aware of differences in pronunciation and even expressed an outright derogatory opinion of thepronunciation of “the inferior sort” (not “the better brought vp sort”) associated with the royal court, as containing “strange accents or ill shapen soundes”.
  • [3] Crowley (2003: chap. 6) presents an extended discussion of some of the current attempts in the literature to define what standard Spoken English is. He concludes with the suggestion that it should only be used“in the sense of being able to share sense and meaning through common effort and communication” (2003:266). Standard Spoken English is thus “what each of us creates every time we use any of the various spokenforms of English and make meaning with them”.
  • [4] We might add here that sociolinguistic research into other varieties of English in the United States(Boberg 2000; Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006) and New Zealand (Bauer et al. 2007; Trudgill & Hannah 2002) givesundisputed present-day evidence of other vowel shifts taking place. It seems that speakers of English, whereverthey are, whichever variety they speak, are simply inveterate vowel shifters.
 
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