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Denying that the GVS ever took place is a dangerous step to take if it involves denying that there was ever an ideology of the GVS based on the greatness myth and ultimately the central linguistic homogeneity myth that formed part of the Milroys’ ideology of the standardisation of English (1999). It is important to recognise the existence of certain powerful discourses and to investigate how they could have come into existence. If we carry out such an investigation, we are automatically involved in opening up the historicity of those discourses, and, in the case of the GVS discourse, this ultimately takes us into the realm of historical sociolinguistics.

The major aspect of the GVS that is consistently ignored, although often mentioned briefly by researchers as a desideratum, is the question of the actuation of the changes that took place in the vowel systems of the varieties of English from around the thirteenth century (if Johnston’s analysis is sound) to the end of the eighteenth century. This is not to say, of course, that vowel shifts were not occurring prior to the thirteenth century, or that they have not occurred since the end of the eighteenth and are still in progress today. Weinreich, Labov and Herzog’s (1968) actuation problem concerns the mechanisms involved in the introduction into a language variety of an innovative construction, its adoption by members of a community of practice[1] and its diffusion to other communities of practice, and although we know that it is almost impossible to observe these processes historically, we do know enough about what happens in present-day speech communities to be sure that they are always active (Milroy 1992; Labov 2001). From sociolinguistic research, we also know that the slenderest of differences in the quality of a vowel can operate as a salient marker of social and geographical differentiation between speakers.

Let us now apply these insights to a possible scenario of text types and everyday communicative situations on the Plain of York in the thirteenth century, on the well-founded assumption that Johnston’s occasional spellings are indeed signs of a shift in the low vowels that had already taken place before Open Syllable Lengthening. We first need to know more about the kinds of texts that would have been produced locally in English in that area and for what purpose. But even without access to Johnston’s sources, we can be reasonably certain that “official” texts would have been produced in Anglo- Norman French and possibly Latin. Writing a text in English would thus have been aimed primarily at an English-speaking audience. Literacy in the thirteenth century is not likely to have been common in the English-speaking community, so those texts would have been produced for oral performance of some kind. It is therefore highly likely that a scribe would introduce spellings that reflected the phonological constructions of the language in his local area. But that scribe will have been privileged enough to be one of the few who were literate. If the texts were largely for oral communication, why were there not more spellings that reflected the vowel shifts? It is here that we begin to see the tensions between oral communication and communication through writing— what I called inscribed orality in chapter 3. The logical assumption is that the scribe must have been writing within the framework of orthographic conventions which regulated the ways in which English was to be represented in written form and at the same time within the framework of patterns of oral communication within the English-speaking community. But judging by the haphazard nature of orthography before the advent of its standardisation from the end of the sixteenth century on and taking into account Voeste’s (2008) evidence of the prestige of spelling variation, this may be a false assumption to make. Producing the “mis-spelling” of a word by reflecting the oral quality of the vowel may thus be interpreted as a way of—unconscious- ly—documenting membership in a community of practice and, at the same time, as documenting membership in the community of “writers in English”.

Tensions such as these become more obvious the more closely the texts approach oral communication, as in the case of personal letters. This is well documented in the Paston letters, the problem here being that they date from the fifteenth century (N. Davis 1971 and 1976; R. Barber 1981). If the beginnings of one of the chain shifts of the GVS are locatable in the thirteenth century, then evidence of the social tensions between a writer and his reading public in terms of whether he documents identity in a community of practice or a discourse community1 2 through written texts becomes even harder to find. On the assumption that the salience of vowel shifts may mark social distinctions of various kinds and that these distinctions frequently lead to accommodation to the language of socially more prestigious speakers (J. Smith 1993), the area in which the two shifts overlapped, the Northeast, suddenly becomes crucial in investigating the geographical diffusion of the shifts, particularly in the direction of East Anglia and London.

The major problem in dealing with written texts from the fifteenth century on is that the orthographic conventions, haphazard as they often are, generally reflect the language of areas prior to the vowel shifts that lie outside the domain of the GVS, which Chomsky and Halle (1968) make abundantly clear. There are two points that we can derive from this fact. First, we desperately need to access texts written prior to the fifteenth century in those areas in which we know the shifts associated with the GVS were either already completed or were well under way. The introduction of the printing press in the last three decades of the fifteenth century focused the orthographic conventions of printing on the phonologically more conservative varieties of London and the Southeast. Second, precisely because of this intensified focus on the language of the

12. See Watts 2008 for an explanation of these terms in reference to the grammarians of the eighteenth century.

capital, the work of the orthoepists takes on a radically new significance. Orthoepists such as Hart, Gil, Cooper, Daines and Wallis, however good or deficient they were as phoneticians, were primarily concerned with standardising the orthographic conventions of written English. Their comments on how various vowels were pronounced were prompted by an acute awareness of the discrepancy between phonological structures and the graphology with which they were represented, not by a desire to standardise pronunciation. In striving to promote a standardised orthography, they were simultaneously promoting the language variety of London and the area around London as their model and thereby taking the first steps towards making that variety the synecdochic dialect that ultimately became “Standard English English”. Unwittingly, therefore, they may have been the first to champion the funnel vision of equating the history of English with the history of the standard variety.

Let us now turn the wheel full circle. In the first section of this chapter I suggested that the adjective “great” with reference to the vowel shifts that are generally subsumed under the GVS refers to the assumed grandiose proportions, the uniqueness, the coherence and the historical significance of those shifts. Stockwell and Minkova, Giancarlo, Johnston and others would probably not want to admit the term “great” to the vowel shift for the simple reason that it was not one vowel shift and that vowels, in any case, are always shifting. If we are interested in researching critically into how the traditional discourse of the history of English has been constructed, however, the GVS loses none of its compulsive power. It certainly does become something of a chimera, but one that we reject at our peril if we are at all interested in putting a number of records straight in the history—and here I would in fact prefer to say “histories”—of English.

One of our aims as sociolinguists should be to shift our attention to an examination of the GVS from two perspectives other than the purely linguistic. First we need to look more closely at the discursive construction of the GVS and link it explicitly to the discursive construction of the standard. In doing so, we reveal other myths that underlie and permeate the discourse, some of which were dealt with in chapter 5 and others that will appear in chapter 7. Second, we need to consider speakers of the many varieties of English within England and Scotland in the period from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century and what they were actually doing with language; in other words, we need to look at vowel shifts from a more sociolinguistic perspective. This second goal lies outside the scope of the present book. The first, however, will be considered in more detail later.

  • [1] Weinreich, Labov and Herzog referred to the phenomenon of the “speech community”, but morerecent research by Eckert (2000) and Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2003) has developed and worked morefruitfully with the concept of the “community of practice”, taken from the work of Wenger (1998) and Laveand Wenger ( 1991 ).
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