FROM THE LEGITIMATE LANGUAGE TO THE STANDARD LANGUAGE
The ideology of the legitimate language, set in motion and driven by the legitimate language myth led to a bipartite division of language in Britain. On the one hand, we have the so-called refined language of the educated, those who had received a classical education, which was of course equivalent to those who had the money to afford such an education: the propertied gentry and aristocracy and those of the middle classes who had achieved newfound
wealth in the first stage of the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, we have the so-called vulgar, barbaric language of the mass of the lower middle classes and the working classes: the language of those who possessed no property and did not have the means for anything but very elementary schooling. Radical politicians and young intellectuals from the middle classes, however, realised very early on in the 1770s and 1780s that this distinction was a bogus one and was only held rigidly in position to protect the property rights of the upper orders. In point of fact, the ornate, classical style of writing could often be shown to contain very little of substance, and even to lead to tautologous repetition. Horne Tooke frequently calls it the language of “imposture”. But as long as this distinction between two different kinds of writing could be upheld and used to discriminate against those who were not able to produce a classical style of writing, language itself had irrevocably become politicised. Language was the outward sign of a person’s origins and good breeding. Horne Tooke’s work must be seen from the political perspective of a radical who was bent on exposing the sham of this distinction. This was the significance of his work, and this was the attraction of his challenge to the established theory of language.
Since it was a theory that supported the argument that only the propertied class with a classical education was fit to govern the country, language became one of the key issues. The more the theory was challenged, the more the established classes attempted to defend it with repressive measures. Horne Tooke’s work must nevertheless have had a great effect on his radical readers if one judges by the newfound political and linguistic confidence displayed by supporters of the reform of Parliament after the Napoleonic Wars. Cobbett successfully challenged the theory through his Grammar of the English Language in 1819, which he wrote specifically for labourers and rustics. One hundred thousand copies had been sold by 1834, indicating the popularity that the grammar enjoyed and the effect it had on improving the writing and speaking of those who had had a rudimentary education, and it was precisely that class of underprivileged workers which drew up the People’s Charter and were so eloquent in defence of their rights during the 1830s and 1840s. In a word, despite the continued repression by the government, the propertied classes were ultimately at a distinct disadvantage.
The solution was subtle. It was to admit that the written language of the “vulgar” was not in fact vulgar, but that it was politically subversive and a danger to national unity within Britain. Only by accepting what rapidly came to be called standard English could one reconstitute the unity that had been lost. Standard English was thus adapted to new social conditions such that it was no longer the property of the upper middle and upper classes, but was the symbol for a unified nation—albeit still under the political dominance of those classes.
The legitimate language thus became the national language and soon the imperial language, which could be commodified and sold to others who wanted to possess it. Crowley (2003) deals with this stage in the history of
English in great detail, so I will forgo a repetition of his arguments. However, it is significant that in the second half of the century there was a renewed interest in the assumed origins of the English language (i.e. the standard language). As Olivia Smith says, “Such an understanding of language forms the background of Tooke’s re-evaluation of Anglo-Saxon and ‘mere’ native English. He insists that early authors and Anglo-Saxon are the proper foundations for understanding English: English is a continuation of Anglo-Saxon ‘with a very little variation of the written character’ ” (1984: 124).
I argued in chapter 2 that the number of translations of Beowulf increased from 1850 onwards and peaked in the final two decades of the century (cf. fig. 2.1). In addition, there was a veritable spate of historical grammars of English, some of which I quoted in chapter 1. And it is in precisely this work that the superiority of English myth, the longevity of English myth and the greatness myth first appear in all their strength. We have seen that many of the other myths dealt with in this book go back several centuries, and some of them may even be universal. The myths with which I began my investigation, however, are rooted in precisely this hegemonic transformation of the polite language myth into the legitimate language myth.
It is also significant that standard English as a written variety of the language lost its power as an indicator of social superiority and class, and, as it did so, great efforts were made to replace it with a so-called oral form of standard taken from the accents of upper-class boys attending public schools, the (eventually) Received Pronunciation or RP. Once again enough work has been carried out on this phenomenon by Mugglestone (1995) and J. Milroy (1999, 2002) to warrant leaving it out of our discussion here. The hegemonic linguistic discourse throughout the nineteenth century and right up to the Second World War was based on the myth that the “best” kind of English was standard English. It formed a powerful discourse archive that did not come under pressure until the late 1950s. Curiously enough, echoes of an attempt to turn the clock back and return to a conceptualisation of English based on notions of “educatedness” and social class reappear in the “standard English wars” generated by the development of the National Curriculum, which is the topic of chapter 10 .