THE "IDEOLOGY OF THE STANDARD LANGUAGE" AND THE COMPLAINT TRADITION

that James and Lesley Milroy’s book Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English is a classic in the sociolinguistic and sociohistorical literature. First published in 1985, it has already gone into two further editions since then (1991 and 1999). In his own contributions to work on the “ideology of the standard language” (1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2007), James Milroy repeatedly emphasises the distinction between two very different approaches towards the phenomenon of human language. On the one hand, theoretical linguists hold that language is a cognitive phenomenon in that it is developed mentally by each individual; on the other hand, standard language cultures tend to believe that language is “the possession of only a few persons . . . who have the authority to impose the rules of language on everyone else” (Milroy 2007: 135). The first view of language is not just cognitive; it is also social, since none of us, as socially functioning human beings, can escape from acquiring language. In chapter 1, I argued that we should thus categorise that view as sociocognitive. The second view of language, however, is committed to the belief that language is a cultural product on a par with such cultural “achievements” as law, art, education, religion and science (see the discussion of the term Kultursprache in chaps. 2 and 5). In this second sense, language is outside the individual and is imposed as an overarching set of rules and constraints that pressure her to acquire forms of linguistic behaviour that are in some sense appropriate to conventionalised social norms. Milroy and Milroy (1999) call this second view of language the “ideology of the standard language”, and its major overlapping characteristics are a belief in the notion of correctness, the importance of some form of authority, the significance of social prestige and a belief in the idea of legitimacy.

Their general arguments are well founded and acceptable, but I shall carry the main argument further and show that the ideology of the standard language should be seen as a subtext of the wider eighteenth-century ideology of politeness, which functioned as a discourse archive for the social life of the upper and middling orders of society in Britain from around the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 till the first half of the twentieth century. In the course of time, the two ideologies became so interwoven that the standard language grew into a rallying point of strongly nationalistic discourse that was transformed into colonialist and imperialist discursive practices, which only began to break down in the 1950s. Crowley (2003), Mugglestone (1995) and I (2002, 2003a) have made this argument a little more explicitly than Milroy, although the first edition of Authority in Language acted as a catalyst in studying the ideological discourse of standard English more critically than hitherto.[1]

Once a standard has emerged, or even while it is in the process of formation, its advocates tend to criticise any variety of language that does not measure

up to their conceptualisation of what the legitimate language should be; they complain about deficiencies in language structure and language use. The Milroys ([1985] 1999) propose that there is a tradition of complaining that can be located in different kinds of discourse focusing on language. Self- elected defenders of the legitimate language rely on the conceptual metaphor A language is a human being. They automatically transfer the failings of the language to the speakers themselves, particularly if those failings concern assumed moral qualities of both the language and the speakers. For example, one of the “true” statements derived from the conceptual metaphor is . If any fault can be found with the language used by a set of speakers, the negative quality of dishonesty can automatically be attributed to those speakers. The statement , which is associated with the statement , leads to the ascription of lack of politeness in those speakers whose language is considered to display moral defects of any kind, that is, if the statement is operative.

The complaint tradition therefore draws on this conceptual metaphor and the statements about language obtained by running it. As Cameron (1995) argues, however, native speakers are generally not aware of such entrenched conceptualisations, since they have been subject since early childhood to a form of socialisation that has constructed them as being “normal” and “correct”. Speakers are ideologically predisposed towards accepting them as naturalised (see Fairclough 1989) and as true, so that they form part of a system of symbolic power which is simply accepted as fact (see Bourdieu 1991). Attempts to correct this line of thought are ultimately futile, and Cameron suggests that researchers would be well advised to face up to this fact. However, the complaint tradition itself reaches much further back than the period of time during which the ideology of the standard language has been in evidence. In chapter 5, I suggested that the same kinds of statement were also present in Higden’s Polychronicon. This leads to the suggestion that all that is needed for a complaint tradition to emerge is a language that is considered to be superior to other languages. In Higden’s case, the superior, or legitimate, language in terms of religion was clearly Latin, and there is a slight indication from the short excerpt from the Polychronicon analysed in chapter 5 that (Anglo-Norman) French functioned as a quasi-official language beyond Church circles.

  • [1] 2 To show how the language question was taken up as part of the ideological discourse of politeness,I shall argue in chapter 8 that the “question” itself acquired an almost mythical validation, which, when fusedwith the ideology of politeness, helped to create the potent modern myth that language is a cultural productrather than an individual sociocognitive possession (cf. the discussion of the term Kultursprache in chap. 5).
 
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