It has been my aim in this chapter to trace out how the concept of politeness in Britain was developed from the French conduct writers and how it was conceptualised in the last 10 to 12 years of the seventeenth and the first 20 years of the eighteenth century. I have argued that the shift from Sprat’s “natural way of speaking” as the recommended form of language to be used in the Royal Society in its early years to the gentrification of philosophy (hence also the gentrification of the language of scientific enquiry outside the universities) corresponds neatly to a shift towards the polite language myth which formed the basis of a discourse ideology of politeness. From the very beginning of its use in English the term “polite” was interpreted ambiguously to justify shifts in the behavioural patterns of the gentry and the nobility, later of the middle classes of society, and held up to those who aspired to membership in higher echelons of society as being a desirable form of social behaviour.
By the end of the eighteenth century the nexus of myths which were traced out in chapters 5 and 7 had been thoroughly absorbed into an ideology of standard English. The ideological discourse was social in that it propagated one form of language for the gentry and the aristocracy, and another for the rest of society. It constructed the hegemonic domination of the former class over the latter along parameters such as heredity, wealth, education and, significantly, language. Through the boom in publications on language from 1750 on, polite language became modelled in terms of grammar, style and lexicon along the lines of the classical languages Latin and Greek. Prescriptive grammars in the wake of Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762 were made to fit into a classical mould even though it was plain to all concerned that English did not have the same richness of morphological marking or syntactic complexity as Latin or Greek. English simply had to be as “classical”, erudite, abstract and refined as the classical models, and the style of writing also had to reflect those models. All other forms of English were said to be “vulgar”, indecent and disrespectful.
Knowledge of the classical languages and their literature was only to be gained at the public schools and grammar schools, and, with very few exceptions, access to these schools was restricted to the upper classes of society. As a result, the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged of society was not only strengthened; it was also widened and deepened. As we shall see in the next chapter, Olivia Smith (1984) considers that, taken together, the spate of prescriptive grammar books—along with James Harris’s Hermes (1751), Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), James Burnett’s (Lord Monboddo’s) Of the Origin and Progress of Language (17741792) and Thomas Sheridan’s A Dissertation on the Causes of Difficulties which Occur in Learning the English Tongue (1762)—constitute a coherent theory of language in the late eighteenth century. It was a theory of polite, refined, classical written language in contradistinction to vulgar, “barbaric” language, and it was a highly politicised theory, allowing those in power to extend their hegemony over the underprivileged of society.
In effect, we are faced here with a dominant sociopolitical discourse on language that effectively constituted a discourse archive determining what could be said and written. In the following chapter, I argue that the ideology of politeness in the years between 1750 and 1850 is transformed into the ideology of the superiority of standard English via the legitimate language myth. I discuss the struggle to maintain hegemony over this discourse archive throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. It was a discourse archive that survived right through to the end of the twentieth century and attempted to reassert itself through the struggle to reintroduce prescriptive grammar in the National Curriculum. In chapter 10 , I aim to show that the discourses resisting this hegemonic discourse, in which both literary scholars and linguists were deeply involved, have so far been successful in challenging the archive, although it is not yet entirely clear what new language discourse will emerge or perhaps has already emerged.
One indication of the enduring significance of the eighteenth-century term “politeness” concerns the current discussion of what standard English is and what it is not, whether or not a unified form of standard English can or should be advanced for the teaching of written and oral English in the British National Curriculum and whether it is justified to represent linguists, literary
scholars and sociolinguists as the “enemies of standard English” as John Honey has done. Honey’s repeated definition of standard English as the language of “literacy and of educatedness” (1997: 35) smacks suspiciously of Hugh Jones’s insistence on the connections between “learnedness”, politeness and “true English” and can perhaps best be seen as a mask used to cloak the author’s real intention of retaining and strengthening social elitism and exclusion.