SWIFT AND AFTER

Whether or not the Proposal is considered to be the “great classic of complaint literature”, Swift’s open letter to the Earl of Oxford certainly illustrates the degree to which he was able to use the standard language question as a smokescreen to hide behind while indulging in political infighting. It is also significant that language can become such a convenient instrument precisely because it is part of the ideological discourse of politeness. Swift may not have believed in that discourse, but he was clearly able to put it to good use.

Certainly, the idea of an emergent standard language at the beginning of the eighteenth century was able to stir the emotions of a whole range of writers, most of whom wrote in the name of “politeness” and “polite society”. Milroy is right when he says that the lay conception of English henceforth was that of a cultural achievement and that looking at English in that way has caused a great deal of harm in the form of social discrimination since the early eighteenth century for millions of people in Britain. But he overlooks the way in which language became a political issue. In omitting this aspect of language in the early eighteenth century, the Milroys have raised Swift to a rather dubious status as the first writer in a complaint tradition, while conveniently forgetting that the myths created around the English language produced “complaints” well before the eighteenth century. It is precisely those myths that Swift uses as part of his satire and political polemic in the Proposal. In omitting the fact that they were dealing with the greatest satirist in English, the Milroys run the risk of creating yet another myth, which we might call, for argument’s sake, the myth of complaining about English.

Of course, this does not mean that such a myth exists, although the latest political battle over the cultural status of standard English that was fought in the 1980s and early 1990s and will be the subject of chapter 10, was essentially a battle fought over such complaints. It was couched in terms of the educational needs of the new National Curriculum, but it was once again based on the old belief that language is a cultural achievement, a Kultursprache, the product of an advanced civilisation. Language is not created by culture; it helps to create culture. It is an ever-changing sociocognitive ability that each and every one of us has, in whatever form. We can construct cultural artefacts and aesthetic verbal masterpieces with language, and although that does not make it the product of culture, it certainly makes it one of the most potent means by which we can create culture. As we shall see in chapter 10 , the battle over English in the National Curriculum was not fought through to the end. What now exists is rather an uneasy truce.

To take Swift literally is an extremely risky undertaking. To quote the extract from a popular song sung in the eighteenth century quoted at the top of this chapter: “As for the Dean, you know what I mean. / If a printer will print him, he’ll scarce come off clean.”

 
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