THE MYTH OF GREATNESS RECONSIDERED

Examining the GVS from the perspective of how it is discursively constructed leads to the deconstruction of a linguistic phenomenon, or, as I now wish to argue, a set of linguistic phenomena, as the crucial historical watershed between a precursor of “modern Standard English” and “modern Standard English” itself. The stories told in constructing the greatness myth thus have little to do with the vowel shift itself, since vowel shifting is an ever-present phenomenon throughout all varieties of English. It may even be an inherent feature of human language in general. It is not the vowel shift, or vowel shifts, or the phenomenon of vowel shifting as a linguistic universal which is held up as a unique historical phenomenon inspiring the admiration and awe of the modern student of English linguistics, but rather the presumed result of the shift(s): the emergence of “modern standard English”.

Constructing the GVS was thus necessary to crystallise a historical pedigree for the English language as the homogeneous national language of a sociohistorically homogeneous nation-state in the twentieth century. The GVS also served its purpose in raising English to the same national language status in other states in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The danger of using the GVS as a useful heuristic in teaching the history of English is that, unless the instructor is perfectly clear about the true dimensions and the ubiquity of vowel shifts in varieties of English, the history presented will focus inevitably on the rise of “modern standard English”. The GVS will thus become instrumental in presenting a funnel view of English, obscuring the heterogeneity of forms of language when used in social practice and the rich array of varieties of what we choose to call English across the world. Studying what leads to vowel shifting is a fascinating area of phonetics and phonology, and in its own right deserves a great deal more consideration of what people actually do with language in the cut-and-thrust of emergent social practice. Embarking on that kind of study in this chapter would have diverted us from the purpose of the book, which is to reveal the myths that lie at the basis of traditional constructions of the history of English.

In chapters 8, 9 and 10 I consider in more detail the close connection between a homogeneous national language and the fiction of a socially homogeneous nation-state, in which, as Jespersen perceived the situation, there was a danger of a “tendency towards the splitting up of the language into dialects—class dialects and local dialects”. In chapters 9 and 10, I shall raise the issue of what Jespersen calls, in conjunction with what he considers to be the undesirability of the language splitting up into dialects, “the normal speech of the educated class, what may be called Standard English”. The greatness myth, like all the other myths discussed in this book, is derived from the archetypal linguistic homogeneity myth. The following chapter refocuses our attention on the possible construction of modern myths about English. The central text to which I shall turn my attention is Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, published in 1712.

 
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