Challenging the hegemony of standard English

If you would not put [these publications of the Defendant] into their hands, would you into those of the lower classes, which are not fit to cope with the sort of topics which are artfully raised for them?

—William Hone, The Three Trials of William Hone, 1818


The obsession with “polite” language in the eighteenth century led, as we saw in chapter 8, to a social stratification of language in which those situated in the upper echelons of the social strata were deemed, by definition, to speak and write “polite English”. The polite language myth was manipulated discursively to distinguish between the ratified members of the gentry and the upper classes and those of the middling orders aspiring to enter the upper ranks. Little or no thought was given to the burgeoning masses of the lower and working classes of society, even though they had always constituted the majority of the overall population. By the end of the eighteenth century the population figures in Britain had almost doubled. In 1700 the population (excluding Ireland) numbered around 6 million, and in 1801 this figure had reached around 10.5 million, increasing the majority of the population in the middle and working classes even further.

Despite these indisputable demographic facts, however, those in power were more worried about a diminution of their ancestral rights and privileges when faced with the increasingly wealthy and more numerous members of the middle classes than about an increase in the size of the working classes. The dominant discourse became hegemonic; it needed to be constantly adapted to the changing social system of values and beliefs by which power structures were upheld (cf. Gramsci 1971) . Throughout the course of the eighteenth century, the concept of the “polite language” was subject to subtle changes that were disseminated through processes of socialisation (cf. McIntosh 1998). Polite language came to be understood as a written form of language using the ornate syntactic structures of the classical languages Latin and Greek and a Latinate vocabulary. It became a matter of written style rather than oral usage.

The surge of prescriptive grammars, dictionaries, pronouncing dictionaries and handbooks on elocution and polite speech after 1750 was a largely middle-class phenomenon, and it is testimony to the self-conscious need among the middle classes to acquire “polite” forms of language. It had more to do with becoming “educated” than being simply “schooled”.[1] The term “standard English” is rarely found throughout the literature on language during the eighteenth century although most of the prescriptive grammarians make a point in their work of disparaging and condemning what we now recognise as nonstandard varieties. The conceptualisation of a “legitimate” form of English different from those varieties that were not legitimate had not yet been fully developed. In addition, language had also become politicised in the final three decades of the eighteenth century. Radicals such as John Wilkes, Charles James Fox, William Beckford, John Horne Tooke, Thomas Paine, William Cobbett, Sir Francis Burdett and others campaigned in and out of Parliament for parliamentary reform—aiming ultimately at universal male suffrage—the reform of Parliament and parliamentary procedures. Some even went so far as to demand a more democratic distribution of land.

It was the language of the radicals rather than that of the lower and working classes that provoked the anger, ridicule and fear of the established classes. “Non-legitimate” language consisted of all forms of language, particularly written, which threatened established institutions and social privileges. The extension of the notion of “non-legitimacy” to nonstandard varieties began to develop only when the negative social consequences of the Industrial Revolution made themselves felt in the lower and working classes, in that section of the population that did not speak or write “polite English” and thus did not have a voice.

In this chapter I shall trace out the transformation of the polite language myth into the legitimate language myth. The transformation rested on the growing awareness of two varieties of English, that which came to be constructed as the standard, on the one hand, and all those language varieties which were English but “vulgar”, hence not standard, on the other.

In the following section I argue that the split between a legitimate language and non-legitimate forms of English arose from the social class distinctions encouraged by the polite language myth throughout the eighteenth century and that it resulted in the politicisation of language by the end of the century. I shall outline Olivia Smith’s hypothesis (1984) that the second half of the eighteenth century was faced with a highly politicised hegemonic form of language theory. It was a language theory that excluded those who spoke or wrote English but did not conform to the conceptualisation of “polite English” constructed in the social classes of the gentry and the aristocracy, the language of middle-class radicals. In particular I shall be interested in the work of John Horne Tooke.

In sections 3 and 4, I sketch out some of the important protest movements among the English working classes in the first 50 years of the nineteenth century and link these to the development of standard English and a growing awareness on the part of the working classes of the significance of their own varieties of English. Since Crowley (2003) and Mugglestone (1995) have argued cogently that the rise of standard English can only be seen as a continuation of the politicisation of language from the end of the eighteenth century on, I shall only mention their work briefly in passing. However, one aspect of elevating standard English to the hegemonic sociopolitical position it occupied till at least the beginning of World War II was the role that linguistic theory played in the latter half of the nineteenth century by focusing its energy on giving English a history. It is here that we find the genesis of some of the myths presented in this book (e.g. the superiority of English myth, the greatness myth and the longevity of English myth and its two submyths).

  • [1] An “educated” person was one who had attended a public school or a grammar school (and often alsoone of the universities) to acquire a classical education in Greek and Latin, and was thus equivalent to amember of the gentry or the aristocracy, who had the means to give their children an expensive education. Inthis sense “educated” is almost translatable into “polite” with respect to the social conditions of the eighteenthand early nineteenth centuries. A “schooled” person was one who had attended an elementary school for thepurpose of acquiring the ability to manipulate rudimentary mathematics and to read and write. Most membersof the middling orders had acquired this form of schooling, although many had also attended grammar schoolswhich aspired to give them the equivalent of a classical education.
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