Commercialising standard English, or polite English

Langford, who has charted the eighteenth-century English obsession for politeness and the ways in which it was interwoven with the obsession for commerce in England from 1727 to 1783, goes so far as to call the attempts of the new, upwardly mobile middle classes of society to achieve polite values a “revolution”, which he describes as follows:

Nothing unified the middling orders so much as their passion for aping the manners and morals of the gentry more strictly defined, as soon as they possessed the material means to do so. This was a revolution by conjunction rather than confrontation, but it was a revolution none the less, transforming the pattern of social relations, and subtly reshaping the role of that governing class which was the object of imitation. The aspirants sought incorporation in the class above them, not collaboration with those below them. (1989: 63)

Langford describes politeness as “an ambiguous term” that was “naturally associated with the possession of those goods which marked off the moderately wealthy from the poor”. Part of what it meant to be “polite” was to acquire the economic ability to purchase those goods. But Langford also defines “the essence of politeness” as “that je ne sais quoi which distinguished the innate gentleman’s understanding of what made for civilized conduct” (71). During the course of the eighteenth century, as the “middling orders” of society became progressively wealthier and more able to buy the outward trappings of polite society, those above them in the social hierarchy began to stress this je ne sais quoi, which had little to do with wealth as such but hinged on what constituted “civilized conduct”. Politeness was not part of the material capital one needed to be successful in the economic marketplace but was located in the symbolic marketplace and concerned with the social values that constitute capital in that marketplace, that is, values that were listed earlier in this chapter such as “social status and prestige, power, influence and . . . language abilities”. The language abilities required are equivalent to Bourdieu’s “legitimate language”. Through the acquisition of this kind of capital, members of the “middling orders” hoped to gain access to the values of the sociocultural marketplace by establishing significant social connections and relational networks. Part of the value system of the sociocultural marketplace, however, consists of acquiring the requisite forms of knowledge and social competence.

However, as is clear from figure 8.1, material capital feeds into both the symbolic and the sociocultural marketplaces, so wealth and material assets should enable the possessor of those forms of capital to “buy” social status and prestige and to establish the requisite social connections needed for their entry into the social echelons of the gentry. On the other hand, two very prominent forms of symbolic capital were necessary to achieve this, the legitimate language and the “right” kind of education. The second of these could be acquired only at the public boarding schools and grammar schools providing a classical education, whereas the first could be “bought” in the form of pedagogical aids to self-instruction. For the vast majority of the middling orders, acquisition of the legitimate language, “polite language”, was thus more feasible than gaining access to a classical education.

As publishing houses sprang up to cater to this burgeoning market, the craze for politeness inevitably became commercialised. Johnson’s dictionary was encouraged, if not in fact commissioned, by the publisher Robert Dodsley, and it was Dodsley who also encouraged Robert Lowth to publish his Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1761. “Polite pronunciation” was made popular by Thomas Sheridan, the father of playwright Richard Sheridan, in the late 1750s and early 1760s. Sheridan took it upon himself to teach the upwardly mobile “middling orders” of Langford’s social scale the “correct” (i.e. polite) way to pronounce English and offered a series of lectures on elocution and related matters to large audiences in different parts of the country in the late 1750s. At each of these lectures he offered the members of the audience the opportunity of putting their names down on a subscribers’ list, committing themselves to buying the published version of the lectures. The lectures were finally published in London in 1762 by another ardent publisher of educational self-help books in the 1760s, the Scotsman William Strahan, under the title A Course of Lectures on Elocution: Together with Two Dissertations on Language and Some Other Tracts Relative to those Subjects. The list of more than 200 subscribers was dutifully added to the beginning of

A Course of Lectures on Elocution, which gives us fairly solid evidence that Sheridan more than covered the costs of the publication by selling the book in this way. Sheridan lectured to packed halls across the country, and an admission fee was charged, so he probably earned large sums of money just by holding the lectures; he need only have mentioned the subscribers’ list very casually to have picked up enough subscribers at each lecture to finance the publication. Sheridan, then, was cashing in on the obsession for politeness. The number of names indicating that the subscribers were members of the landed gentry or the aristocracy was extremely small. Sheridan’s work and John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language mark the beginnings of a discourse that was to construct what later became known towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century as Received Pronunciation (RP), as the only socially acceptable form of speech—at least in Britain and the British Empire.

The ideology of politeness based on the polite language myth had come to dominate the discourse of standardisation to such an extent that even pronunciation could not escape its attention. So many grammars of English were published in the latter half of the eighteenth and well on into the nineteenth century, many of which went into large numbers of editions and reprints, that we are justified in considering the English language market in the second half of the eighteenth century to have been extremely lucrative (see also Belanger 1982; Fitzmaurice 1998; Percy 2004; Watts 2008).

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