The link between politeness and language in Britain was one of the major cultural forces in the formation of the powerful ideology of standard English. Even as late as 1920, Thomas Nicklin, in a book titled Standard English Pronunciation with some Notes on Accidence and Syntax, makes the following set of statements:

I will venture to contend that it is the right of everyone born in these islands, whatever the profession and whatever the property of his parents, to be taught to speak that English dialect which marks an educated man [i.e. standard English]. Nothing can be more disastrous than that the accidents of history, which have led to this dialect of the educated appearing to be a special prerogative of the well-to-do, should be regarded as irretrievable. The democratic spirit must demand for every child, however humble his parents’ occupation, that he shall be taught that one common dialect which can be understood everywhere, and which is the modern representative of all that has been greatest in English learning, statesmanship, oratory, poetry, and politeness. (1920: 10-11)

The term “politeness”, here and elsewhere in Nicklin’s book, is to be understood in the way it was defined in chapter 8. However, in the quotation from

Nicklin it is now explicitly connected through the ideology of standard English to education, learning, oratory and poetry,1 indicating a further transformation of the polite/legitimate language myth into the myth of the educated language. The connection between Nicklin’s defence of standard English and the notion of education can be clearly seen here, although modern proponents of “educatedness” have masked their endorsement of the socially exclusive nature of standard English through the argument that it is the language of the educated. In doing so, being educated in this late modern sense also means being socially exclusive, although in a way that is rather different from the late-eighteenth-century sense.

In the second edition of Standard English and the Politics of Language, Crowley adds an extra chapter to bring the reader up-to-date on what we may call the “state of the standard English question”. The first edition took the reader up to the end of the 1980s and the bitter dispute between Conservative politicians, the media and self-appointed guardians of the language, on the one hand, and linguists, education theorists and teachers, on the other. In this chapter, I shall use the metaphorical term the “National Curriculum wars”, a bold step and one that goes beyond what Tony Bex and I called a “widening debate” in 1999, but one that I feel is adequate to define the feeling of verbal warfare on the subject of English in the National Curriculum in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The ’90s saw the lukewarm reception of the Kingman Report, the embarrassment over the Cox Report,2 and the final implementation of the National Curriculum in England and Wales.3 The definition of standard oral English, however, has still not been adequately tackled, and when we read such linguists as Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik in their grammar (1985) referring to

  • 1. To be fair to Nicklin, though, the socially exclusive nature of this alliance of concepts is roundly rejected by him.
  • 2. The Kingman Report was the final report made by the Committee of Inquiry into English Language Teaching chaired by Sir John Kingman, which was set up in 1986 by the secretary of state for education and science in the Conservative government of the time, Kenneth Baker. Its terms of reference were:
  • 1. To recommend a model of the English language, whether spoken or written, which would:
    • (1) serve as a basis of how teachers are trained to understand how the English language works;
    • (2) inform professional discussion of all aspects of English teaching.
  • 2. To recommend the principles which should guide teachers on how far and in what ways the model should be made explicit to pupils, to make them conscious of how language is used in a range of contexts.
  • 3. To recommend what, in general terms, pupils need to know about how the English language works and in consequence what they should have been taught, and be expected to understand, on this score, at age 7, 11 and 16.

The Cox Report was produced by the Cox Committee set up by the Conservative government under the chairmanship of Brian Cox, professor of English at the University of Manchester. The Cox Committee was set up immediately after the publication of the Kingman Report to develop a curriculum for English teaching “for all pupils, whatever their first language” (Thompson 2000: 33).

3. One might even argue that the Kingman Report was given the cold shoulder by the Conservative government at the time, and it is known that Mrs Thatcher’s immediate reaction to it was that it should be rejected. As it was, its acceptance and publication were not welcomed by those who felt very strongly that the form of “grammar” teaching common in the schools of the 1950s should be reintroduced.

“Standard English” as educated English or even Trudgill (1995) referring to it as “the variety which is normally spoken by educated people”, they sound suspiciously like eighteenth-century proponents of “educatedness”. Crowley is acutely aware of the dangers here, and he reminds us of what Raymond Williams argued in Communications: “At the roots of much of our cultural thinking is our actual experience of speech. In Britain the question of good speech is deeply confused, and is in itself a major source of many of the divisions in our culture” (Williams 1962: 102). The argument that I wish to trace out and deconstruct in this chapter is the perhaps not so subtle transformation of the eighteenth-century discourse of politeness, by way of a prior transformation into the discourse of the legitimate language, into a discourse of educatedness.

In effect this transformation was really only a subtle shift in the conceptual meanings of the lexeme educated itself. To say that someone was “educated” in the latter half of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century implied that he or she (usually, of course, “he”) had been exposed to a thorough training in Latin and Greek, classical literature and rhetoric. To say that someone was “schooled” meant that that person had been given enough rudimentary instruction and training at school to be able to read and write passably and to apply the fundamental principles and functions of mathematics in his everyday life. Until the post-World War II era, “schooling” did not really mean much more than this. It was not meant to prepare young people for adult life in other respects despite the fact that subjects such as history, geography, the natural sciences, physical education and foreign languages had been added to the syllabus.[1] The major problem was that, until well into the 1960s, the “educated” were still thought of as the privileged sector of society (whether or not they had come from middle-class or working-class homes), as those who had enjoyed a public school or grammar school education, or as those who constituted the “top 5 percent” of the population who went on to study at one of the universities.

In my essay “From polite language to educated language” (2002), I showed how, in the modern discourse on standard English, polite language, particularly with reference to the socially legitimate version of the spoken language, was subtly transformed into the language of the educated, and Crowley gives evidence of how this came about with the extension of universal education in the nineteenth century. In doing so, the myth forming the nucleus of this hegemonic discourse, the politellegitimate language myth, lost none of its socially divisive force. To give evidence for this point of view, I shall first consider the teaching of English in schools throughout England and Wales and show how the transformation from polite to educated language came to the fore during the National Curriculum wars in the 1980s, in which both literary scholars and linguists were deeply involved.

  • [1] Teaching children with the aim of preparing them for the vagaries of adult life and the difficulties ofchoosing a trade or a profession was certainly the goal of a number of excellent, dedicated teachers throughoutBritain, but the overall tenor of elementary education till the age of 14 (in pre-World War II days), 15 (in thepostwar period until the 1960s) or 16 (from the 1960s on) was not particularly conducive to such teachinggoals.
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