"Refined" and "vulgar" language

How could this discourse archive have taken hold so quickly and have endured almost to the present? As we have seen, the second half of the eighteenth

century is characterised by a tremendous increase in the number of works published in Britain on language, in particular prescriptive grammars of English (for details, see, e.g., Michael 1991, 1997). Although there are notable exceptions, the majority of these works were pitched at those desperately needing to acquire the ability to write “politely”, a style replete with the ornate syntactic structures of Latin and Greek and a Latinate vocabulary. Their authors consistently proscribed and prescribed for the benefit of their readers. At the same time, Harris’s Hermes (1751) sets out to define what Harris considered to be “universal grammar”, a term that meant something very different from the way it is used in modern linguistics. A distinction was made in Harris’s work and in the work of others (e.g. Monboddo 1774-1792) between structures and lexemes that could be seen as universal in meaning and usage and those that were simply used to describe past, future and present events. Universal language encoded timeless things, ideas and events, which had been released from the immediate needs of the present, since the timeless must represent universal truths. Olivia Smith (1984: 24) gives the following example of what Harris means by quoting a section from his discussion of the verbs. Harris (1751: 159-160) maintains that the indicative mode “exhibits the Soul in her purest Energies, superior to the Imperfection of Desires and Wants . . . [and] serves Philosophy and The Sciences, by just Demonstrations to establish necessary Truth; that Truth ... which knows no distinctions either of Past or Future, but is everywhere and always invariably one.”

Such language veers towards the abstract rather than the concrete. The classical languages are seen to have reached a state of perfection in which abstract concepts could be expressed in individual nominal structures (rather than verbs) and with complex syntax relying on logical connectives. Logical connectives themselves and other “particles”,[1] as they were called, have no meaning but to express the logical connections between abstract concepts, and for this reason they are highly valued by Harris and others. The goal of a writer (rather than a speaker) is to achieve this degree of abstraction and perfection in English. Vulgar language, on the other hand, is tied to the here and now and to what Harris calls “Desires and Wants”. From this perspective, it is entirely unable to express universal truths.

Such a theory drives a huge wedge between written and oral language, between the expression of the universal and the expression of personal opinion and the present situation, between those who have been trained through a classical education to imitate the apparent achievements of the classical languages in written English and those who have not had this training—in short, between the haves and have-nots. It becomes a theory of social

superiority and discrimination disguised as a theory of language, and it differentiates between those who are judged worthy to rule and those who are ruled. In the first section of this chapter, I touched on the significant population increase in the second half of the eighteenth century. With it, more and more members of the “middling orders” of society were seeking access to the ranks of the gentry, and more and more of the lower and working classes were also clamouring to have a voice in the management of the political affairs of the country. The theory that English was a “classical” language like Latin and Greek was used explicitly by politicians, who of course had a classical education, to exclude those of the middling orders who had not, as well as the lower and working classes, from having any say in the political running of Britain. In this way the polite language myth was politically transformed into the legitimate language myth. The only legitimate language was written standard English displaying the features of classical syntax and a classical lexicon.

Smith gives examples of petitions sent to Parliament in 1793, 1810 and 1817 favouring universal suffrage or at least an extension of the suffrage (Smith 1984: 30), which were either rejected on the grounds that the language was “highly indecent and disrespectful”, or, if they were accepted, were not sent to the committee stage.[2] The 1793 petitions from Sheffield and Nottingham are taken from The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (Vol. XXX, p 776):

Your petitioners are lovers of peace, of liberty, and justice. They are in general tradesmen and artificers, unpossessed of freehold land, and consequently have no voice in choosing members to sit in parliament:—but though they may not be freeholders, they are men, and do not think themselves fairly used in being excluded the rights of citizens.[3]

Certain members of Parliament objected in the debate that there was nothing indecent about the wording of the petition, but they were given to understand that “persons coming forward as petitioners, should address the House in decent and respectful language” (XXX, 779). In other words, a petition had to be phrased in the correct classical style of the legitimate language, or it would be rejected on the grounds of a lack of decency and respect. There are also cases of petitioners who attempted to couch their petitions in what they perceived to be the acceptable style, only to receive the response in parliament that the language was not “the genuinely authentic language of the petitioners” but “the dictation of certain factious demagogues” (XXV, 91, quoted in O. Smith 1984: 33). In other words, there was always a way in which those in power could reject petitions from those not in power on the grounds of the language of the petition alone.

  • [1] I refer to the distinction made in most prescriptive grammars in the eighteenth century between theparts of speech (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and participles) and the so-called particles, those wordswhich were assumed not to have had intrinsic meaning but were used by authors to construct larger, moreabstract syntactic units such as prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and so on (e.g. prepositions, articles,some adverbs, conjunctions and pronouns).
  • [2] Parliamentary procedure in Britain involves the transference of a petition or a bill that has beenaccepted in principle by the House to the next procedural stage in which a parliamentary committee debates onthe exact wording of the proposal before it is debated properly in the House of Commons. At the committeestage amendments and deletions may be proposed for debate in the House. American procedures are essentiallysimilar, but the term used to define the procedure is “to send to committee” rather than “to send to thecommittee stage”.
  • [3] One possible explanation for the petition being couched in language that was seen as “highly indecentand disrespectful” might lie in the phrase “in being excluded the rights of citizens,” in which the preposition“from” after the verb “excluded” has been left out.
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