Reinterpreting Swift's A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue

Challenging an embryonic modern myth

And as for the Dean, you know what I mean,

If a printer will print him he’ll scarce come off clean.

—from “The Dean’s Pamphlet”, a popular eighteenth-century Irish song


Not all myths have a long history. Some may have been constructed in the relatively recent past, and others may still be in the process of construction. Sociolinguists must be careful to recognise, in their own interpretations of their research findings, the potential the evidence may have for the discursive construction of myths about the past or present state of a language. One of these potential myths, the creolisation of English myth, was discussed in chapter 4, in which we observed how (socio)linguistic discourse may be carried beyond the discursive practices of the academic linguistic community and become part of the overall system of beliefs about language that are shared or contested.

One of the principal arguments in this book has been that the prototypical myth in English (but, by wider implication, in any “language”) is that of a homogeneous, structurally perfect linguistic system, and I have classified [1]

this prototypical myth as the linguistic homogeneity myth. I have taken pains to link it to the ways in which the idea of homogeneity can be applied just as easily to other cultural categories such as social structure and social institutions, political systems, the nation-state, religion and race. My intention has been not merely to deconstruct some of the more common linguistic myths concerning the history of English, but also to focus on three potential new myths:

  • 1. the argument that Middle English (and by extension modern English) or even other earlier forms of language contact involving English can be classified as a creole or creole-like language (see chap. 4);
  • 2. the focus on a complaint tradition in tracing out the ideology of standardisation in English, which will be dealt with in this chapter; and
  • 3. the current insistence that English is the “global language” par excellence (which I’ll discuss in chap. 11).

However, rather than trace out the development of a new myth, this chapter sets out to identify the myths that have been discussed so far (particularly in chap. 5) in Jonathan Swift’s pamphlet A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, written in 1712. My central aim is to deconstruct the interpretation of this pamphlet as “the great classic of complaint literature in English” (Milroy & Milroy 1999: 27) by interpreting how Swift makes skilful use of language myths for his own political and polemical purposes. It highlights the danger of assuming that Swift’s text—and perhaps others—lies within the tradition of complaining about language, and it does this by relating significant sections of the Proposal in which the myths occur to the sociohistorical, sociopolitical and sociocultural context within which Swift was writing. It argues that Swift may well have been aware of the myths and was primarily using them for his own purposes in the Proposal. My interpretation of the pamphlet thus goes against the grain of “official” interpretations offered in historical sociolinguistics, and my major point is that ignoring the sociopolitical framework within which Swift wrote the pamphlet and his underlying purpose in writing it could easily lead to interpretations that lend themselves to mythologisation. It can be dangerous to view the discourse that forms part of the archive of an earlier historical period as constituting a coherent whole from the perspective of one’s own archives. Without drawing on important sociohistorical evidence, this is always a latent danger.

  • [1] would like to thank Regula Koenig, one of my former students, for allowing me to use her investigationinto the historical framework without which Swift’s pamphlet cannot be properly understood. Her paper onthis subject was excellent and has greatly assisted me in locating the connections between what appear on thesurface to be Swift’s ideas and his satirical intentions in voicing them.
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