Transforming a myth to save an archive

When polite becomes educated

From her radio and television appearances it seemed [Mrs Rumbold] found repugnant our insistence that a child’s dialect is not inaccurate in its use of grammar and should be respected.

—Brian Cox, Cox on Cox, 1991


Within the last 30 years, linguists have experienced the so-called pragmatic turn in linguistics. So we may be forgiven for missing out on the fact that literary studies have also experienced a number of their own “turns” in the late modern era. The turn in literary studies that promises to produce the most fruitful forms of collaboration between linguists and literary theorists in helping to deconstruct “the history of the language” discourse and solving the “question of good speech” once and for all is what I will call the “cultural turn”. The cultural turn represents an attempt to embed the study of literature (and of course the same goes for the study of language) into the study of cultural movements in general. The pragmatic turn is a turn toward the uniquely dialogic nature of language, toward the social process of meaning making, toward the acceptance of the simple truism that it is human language that turns homo socialis into homo culturalis.

It is human language that enables social groups to construct a past with all its myths and histories and to project a future with all its hopes and utopias. It is human language that allows individuals, as members of social groups, to communicate with one another, to reason, hypothesise, construct ideologies, exert power and dominate others. And it is human language that allows individuals to attempt to express the inexpressible, to imagine and fantasise, to weave webs of creation.

Chapters 8 and 9 trace out the process by which a set of individual myths all deriving from the linguistic homogeneity myth were focused on the discursive construction of an ideology of politeness that, from the outset, was imbued with ideas of social superiority. It was an ideology that fed easily into the embryonic ideology of the standard language and was fostered throughout the eighteenth century by the commercial production of books on English, on the one hand, and the emergence of Britain as a maritime colonial power, on the other. The onset of the Industrial Revolution in the last quarter of the eighteenth century propelled the ideology of the standard language forward until social unrest in Britain during and in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the second stage of the Industrial Revolution created the necessity to construct the standard language discursively as a unifying catalyst in the attempt to prevent a sociopolitical revolution in Britain. In this way, the eighteenth century polite language myth was transformed into the legitimate language myth in the nineteenth-century construction of the nation-state, in which a homogeneous language spoken by all was to be linked with a homogeneous political system and a homogeneous religion. The nation-state was to exemplify a homogeneous “culture”.

As we saw in chapter 9, however, the ideology of the legitimate language that emerged from both myths constituted a dominant language discourse that became highly politicised in the first half of the nineteenth century by the strong challenge offered by radical thinkers, writers and politicians. As unofficial representatives of the disenfranchised mass of the lower middle and working classes, they did not take kindly to being excluded from political decision making on the grounds that their style of written English was classified as “vulgar” by those above them in the rigid social class structure that characterised Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century. They spoke and wrote English plainly and directly, avoiding what Horne Tooke called the “imposture” of the “refined” and “educated” sections of society. We also saw in the previous chapter that the assumed rights and privileges of the propertied classes were based on a bogus sociolinguistic distinction between refined and vulgar varieties of English.

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the unprecedented industrialisation of Britain and in the face of the painful socioeconomic and sociocultural transformation of the country, an unbending insistence on those rights led to wholesale poverty, massive exploitation of the working classes and serious outbreaks of violence. With hindsight, however, the threat of armed insurrection on a national scale seems to have been relatively insignificant, and it is hard for us to fathom the latent, almost permanent fear of the upper middle and upper classes of society in the face of an ever more confident and growing mass of disenfranchised citizens. As noted in chapter 9, one solution would certainly have been to grant universal suffrage and to reform the parliamentary system to stamp out the rampant political corruption inherent in it. But it is easy to make those suggestions now, from our own late modern archive, and not at all easy to see things from the perspective of a population trying to grapple with new and frightening problems.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, the answer appeared to be the adaptation of the ideology of the legitimate language in the face of the new social conditions, and, as Crowley (2003) has shown, to re-create standard English as a socially unifying force to which every citizen in Britain, at least in theory, had access. The problem was that access to it was never equal, which is witnessed by the shift of focus from the written standard language to a proposed oral standard (see Crowley 2003: chap. 5), which did not seriously change the permissible and impermissible statements of the discourse archive. Certain forms of language were “refined”, hence socially acceptable, and others were “unrefined” or “vulgar”, hence unacceptable. As we shall see in this chapter, the discourse archive itself (which had its beginnings in the late eighteenth century) began to be challenged and to break down only in the 1950s. One last, rearguard action on the part of politicians in the late 1980s attempted to reverse this trend, and I shall deal with this challenge here. My assessment at the end of the chapter is that it failed and that it also leaves sociolinguists seriously questioning what is meant by the term “standard language”.

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