Institutionalising the ideology of politeness/standard English

Discursively constructing an ideology from a nexus of interconnected myths is one thing, but transforming the discourse into a discourse archive constituting

“the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault 1972: 129) is another. As we saw in chapter 3, a discourse archive represents a hegemonic discourse that is open to reproduction, transformation and change. It disguises its discontinuity through statements that disperse the elements involving that discontinuity and that simultaneously construct an impression of cohesion and continuity. When statements founded on myth become naturalised discourse, they acquire a symbolic power (in Bourdieu’s terms) that hides the essential discontinuity of the overall discourse.

This is precisely what happened in the discourse of standard English, which fed upon the ideology of politeness and, in so doing, created the discursive means through which that ideology was able to transform itself. This process can be observed throughout the eighteenth century with the overall effect that by the turn of the nineteenth century a belief in standard English had successfully been constructed, and the conceptualisation of politeness had changed in the process. This development can be observed in the extraordinarily rapid institutionalisation of the “legitimate” language, standard English, after 1750 in the education system and, in particular, in the very large numbers of grammars, dictionaries, pronouncing dictionaries and books teaching good style that flooded the market. In the process, the notion of the “polite language” gradually slipped into the background. However, in a little- known grammar published in 1724 by Hugh Jones, all of the myths are still explicitly in evidence.

Jones’s Accidence to the English Tongue was published in London, although Jones describes himself in the frontispiece as “lately Mathematical Professor at the College of William and Mary, at Williamsburgh in Virginia, and Chaplain to the Honorable the Assembly of that Colony”. It is therefore not clear whether Jones had returned to Britain at the time his grammar was published or was still in Virginia. The grammar encompasses just 69 pages, which are divided into five parts: 1. “Of English Letters” (pp. 2-15); 2. “Of English Syllables” (pp. 15-19); 3. “Of English Words” (pp. 20-38); 4. “Of English Sentences” (pp. 39-41); and 5. “Of English Discourse, or Speech” (pp. 42-69).

Just more than a third of the grammar was thus devoted to what Jones calls “English Discourse, or Speech”, and even a brief look at the topics of part 5 and the way in which Jones presents those topics reveals that, apart from a description of discourse as being composed of sentences and a list of rhetorical tropes with examples, they are in fact rules of how to behave linguistically in a socially acceptable way.

Carew’s praise of the “copiousness” of the English language as represented in its dialects is supplanted in Jones’s Accidence by the discourse of “right English”. He even goes so far as to suggest that the “polite Londoner” would find great amusement in listening to people conversing in rural dialects. The telltale word is, of course, “polite”. Jones goes on to classify the variety of dialects as a “Confusion of English”, but in listing five principal types of

English, he also includes the “Proper, or London Language”, meaning not, of course, the English of the East End of London, but rather the English of the royal court. This is a return to the strictures of George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (cf. chap. 5), in which he advises the budding poet to follow the example of the royal court. In the Whig domination of politics from 1688 till 1712, the court was decidedly not chosen as a model by those writing on English, not even in Swift’s Proposal. For Jones, the “polite Londoner” can be assumed to be a member of the gentry, and the language variety that Jones goes on to praise is the English of polite society.

The subsection titled “Of Delivery” immediately adopts a prescriptive tone:

In Delivery you must regard 1st, the Quantity, 2dly, the Accent; 3dly, the Emphasis.

On p. 22 Jones tells his reader that

it is to be wished, that a Publick Standard were fix’d; as a Touchstone to true English, whereby it might be regulated, and proved, which alone might give License to Person, and Occasion to make Addition, or Corrections.

Jones makes a difference here between a “Publick Standard” and “true English”. The form, or grammar, of the language, “a Publick Standard”, should be used to evaluate whether individual speakers and writers are using the language “truly”, that is, in a way that is socially acceptable. Note here also that Jones, like Defoe, would like to see English “regulated, and proved”, although he does not make it entirely clear who should be responsible for fixing the standard. From p. 51 till the end of the text Jones’s grammar abounds with descriptions of socially acceptable forms of linguistic behaviour and the rules that individuals should follow to produce them, all of which help to construct discursively the myth introduced in this chapter, the polite language myth.

In The Evolution of English Prose, 1700-1800: Style, Politeness, and Print Culture, McIntosh (1998) is primarily interested in tracing the cultural developments in print culture in eighteenth-century Britain and showing how prose style became progressively less oral and more “classical” as the century wore on. But he also shows an acute awareness of the close connections between the ideology of politeness and the ideology of standardisation, as we can see from the following two extracts:

If we think of “English” as a count noun, as a great bundle of different systems of verbal communication, written as well as spoken, with its various strands sort- able by region, social class, age, gender, genre, and occasion, then the ordering of English can hardly be ignored. It affected syntax, semantics, word order, vocabulary, style. It introduced new conventions for polite and utilitarian prose, for the genres preferred by women and men of sensibility, for dictionaries and for political tracts. (235)

Whatever it was that promoted politeness and precision in language may sometimes have served to exclude unschooled writers from the circles of influence and power. Exactly the same forces may sometimes have helped the unschooled to gain access to circles of influence and power by enabling them to write standard English. (24)

McIntosh also deals with the influence that prescriptive grammarians may have had on these developments, although he remains a little cautious here and suggests that we might need to treat the grammarians as being symptomatic of an acute linguistic awareness rather than as the direct or indirect causes of language change. However, Arnovick’s analysis of Swift’s use of “will” and “shall” (see section 1 of this chapter) indicates that they may not have generated a certain insecurity only in Swift’s use of English; they may also have had more influence on the future shape of standard English than sociolinguists are prepared to admit. Such insecurities as Swift’s may well have been satisfied by the glut of grammars published in the latter half of the eighteenth century, as we shall see in the following subsection.

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