COMMERCIALISING THE MYTH OF THE POLITE LANGUAGE

The ideology of politeness, of course, concerns many more forms of social behaviour than simply language usage, but its greatest effect can be seen in the codification of English throughout the eighteenth century. The beginnings of this codification can be traced back at least as far as the first half of the sixteenth century, but a focus on written text rather than oral language production seems to dominate the first half of the eighteenth century. Driven by the obsession for politeness, it was inevitable that standardisation should rapidly crystallise into an elitist social discourse. Both McIntosh (1998) and Watts (1999b, 2002 and 2003a) use the term “gentrification” to refer to those changes in language that had become social class distinctions by the middle of the century. McIntosh suggests that “the presumption of a system of social rank is deeply implicated in the language itself” (McIntosh 1998: 23), and he ventures the tentative opinion that it “may sometimes have served to exclude unschooled writers from the circles of influence and power” (24). But at the same time he also allows for the possibility that those same forces may have helped the “unschooled” to gain access to circles of power through the acquisition of the standard. I would argue that the mechanism of social exclusion is likely to be more accurate.

In the course of the eighteenth century, emergent standard English is socially constructed as the “legitimate language”, a term taken from the work of Pierre Bourdieu within his wider concept of the marketplace. Bourdieu’s marketplace refers to all human activity in any social grouping and in any form of social interaction. Despite the obvious fact that the lexeme marketplace here is a metaphor taken over from the field of bargaining, buying and selling, Bourdieu did not want it to be understood metaphorically. His point was that in all interaction we give and take, paying for and receiving tribute for the value of that which is taken or given.

The marketplace can be understood either as an emergent concept, one which is constructed in every instance of interaction, or as a concept governing ways in which we interact socially. It is both an opus operatum and a modus operandi, what has been achieved and the mode of achieving it. Bourdieu’s theory of practice is thus a theory of what goes on in every emergent marketplace. The marketplace of human interaction can be defined in three ways: [1]

  • 2. It is social or cultural, one in which payment is made in terms of human relations between the participants, the emergent formation of a range of personal identities, the acquisition and application of forms of knowledge and mental and physical skills, including language.
  • 3. It is symbolic, one in which payment is made in terms of perceived or acquired social status, power, prestige, influence, and so on.

To function in the material marketplace one needs forms of material capital. For example, one needs a product to exchange for some other product or its symbolic monetary value; one needs finance, the means of production and a labour source; one needs to acquire profit; and so on. The sociocultural marketplace is determined by forms of sociocultural capital such as social connections, relational networks, forms of knowledge (including language), mental and physical skills, acquired competences and forms of identity. The forms of capital required in the symbolic marketplace are abstract qualities such as social status and prestige, power, influence and, significantly, language abilities. All three kinds of marketplace are in operation concurrently in any social interaction, and most of the values paid for and received in both the sociocultural and the material marketplaces are derived from forms of symbolic capital, language being one of the most central. So there is a constant flow from an underlying set of symbolic values that fuel interaction in the material and sociocultural marketplaces, and there is a constant give and take between sociocultural and material marketplaces. We can envisage this in the form of a dynamic model such as figure 8.1.

Various kinds of resource are necessary to acquire these forms of capital, the major type of resource in the area of symbolic capital being language.

Bourdieu’s concept of the marketplace

figure 8.1. Bourdieu’s concept of the marketplace

However, the types of resource necessary to acquire capital can vary in their forms, and each form can have a greater or lesser value than another form. In the case of language, highly valued forms of language give the user of those forms access to economic and cultural marketplaces. The most highly valued form of linguistic capital, in Bourdieu’s terms, is “legitimate language”: that language which has acquired a place of preeminence through forms of institutional discourse.

Individuals can be socialised into the ways in which they should comport themselves within any one marketplace, whether economic, cultural, or symbolic. The “feel” for a situation which an individual needs to gain to react accordingly is referred to by Bourdieu as the habitus. Bourdieu and Passeron (1994: 8) state that “language is the most active and elusive part of the cultural heritage”, thereby implying that the “linguistic habitus” is one of the most salient kinds of habitus in social interaction and one of the most difficult to change.

The term “legitimate language” refers not only to a highly valued, officially sanctioned linguistic code, but also to the forms of discourse that characterise the social institution concerned. In the case of the social classes of the gentry and the nobility in the eighteenth century, the legitimate language code is constructed as “standard” English, and the legitimate forms of language behaviour are those that define the habitus of the gentleman, polite language. The other principal behavioural attributes of the habitus are also constructed socially, and, together with the “legitimate language”, they serve as a means to admit members to the social classes of the gentry and the nobility or, alternatively, to exclude them.

However, as we saw in sections 2-4, between the time Sprat published his History of the Royal Society in 1667 and the time Defoe published his Essay upon Projects some thirty years later, a fundamental social reconstruction had taken place in the conceptualisation of the “legitimate language”. The reconstruction entailed the emergence of the polite language myth, which formed a central part of a mythical construction involving of the idea of the gentleman and of polite society. In the following three subsections I shall outline how this myth was developed discursively in a sociocultural and sociopolitical sense to become a dominant naturalised discourse (or what Fairclough [1995] would call a hegemonic discourse) in eighteenth-century Britain, one that survived till late in the twentieth century. Its main lynchpin was the “ideology of standard English”.

  • [1] It is material or economic, a marketplace in which payment is made by themutual exchange of equally valued objects or by the symbol of those objectsin the form of money.
 
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