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Myths, ideologies of English and the funnel view of the history of English

History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.

—Napoleon Bonaparte



From conceptual metaphors to discourse archives

figure 12.1. From conceptual metaphors to discourse archives

Higden’s Polychronicon, to the explanations for the Great Vowel Shift and a reanalysis of Swift’s famous Proposal. I then dealt with the changing conceptualisation of politeness in the eighteenth century to show how it became central to the dominant discourse of language in that century and operated as a means of establishing and cementing social class distinctions that lasted well into the twentieth century. The close association of polite language with the upper levels of the class system was not only instrumental in developing standard English; it also helped to establish it as the legitimate language in Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Some of the sociopolitical consequences of that development were dealt with in chapter 9 . My next step was to move into the recent past, the late 1980s, when the myth of the legitimate language reared its head once again, this time in the guise of the educated language myth, and I ended with some of the current problems generated by the term “global language”.

The aim of this book has not been to write yet another history of English, but rather to show how different histories of English have actually helped to construct language myths which are at the basis of a dominant discourse on

what modern English is and how the history of the language should be taught. Admittedly, from a historical point of view there are rather large gaps in my analysis of this discursive trajectory through the course of time. The fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been largely ignored, as has the end of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. A great deal of interesting material still has to be examined, particularly in the fifteenth century, which might not only reveal evidence for the myths I have proposed but also enable us to discover potential new myths. In all probability, new myths will interconnect in interesting ways with the myths suggested here. It may be objected that, since the larger myths governing the modern-day presentation of the history of English are dominated by a discourse which arose in the latter nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century, this particular gap is problematic. However, I have quoted quite liberally from some of those texts at various places in the book. In addition Crowley (2003), Mugglestone (1995) and James Milroy (1996, 1999, 2000, 2002) have already gone over most of this ground, which would make a repetition of their work somewhat unnecessary.

The myths discussed in the present volume form three distinct but interconnected groups. In the first group, we find myths that sprang up in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the wake of the construction of the nation-state in Europe (cf. the first section of chap. 5). In chapters 2 and 3 I have dealt with the two aspects of what I have called the longevity of English myth, the ancient language myth (chap. 2), and the unbroken tradition myth (chap. 3). The nation-state concept did not suddenly appear in the nineteenth century but was formed gradually through the emergence of such powerful European states as Great Britain, France, Spain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and Prussia, three of which (Spain, France and Britain) were engaged in an embittered struggle for colonial domination on a worldwide scale throughout the eighteenth century. In addition, apart from domination in the areas of trade, the economy and the establishment of overseas colonies, one of the other components of the nation-state concept that emerged in all its force in the nineteenth century, as a powerful determiner of how the nation-state was actually to be defined, was the standardisation and national diffusion of certain languages: Spanish, English, German and French. The age of politeness in Britain spawned the notion of the “polite language”, a powerful social myth that, at least in Britain, was all important in focusing the efforts on the codification and standardisation of the English language (cf. the discussion of the polite language myth in chap. 8). The confluence of the concept of the nation-state with one national standard language and one national religion led to the emergence of another myth, the legitimate language myth, in the nineteenth century.

The second nexus of myths presented in chapters 5 and 7 is composed of a set of interlinked myths that go back several centuries, some at least as far as the twelfth century, and most of them common to the language myths developed in other European countries. In fact it is highly likely that some of

these myths are inherent in perceptions of language in general, particularly when different languages come into contact with one another. The pure language myth and the perfect language myth, obviously very closely related, are not restricted to perceptions of English. I have ample evidence of this myth in frequent statements by Swiss-German dialect speakers bemoaning the loss of “pure” Basel German, “pure” Zurich German or “pure” Bernese German! Closely related to these myths are those that tell the stories of the dangers of language contact and warn that such contact involves contamination (the contamination through contact myth), or even decay and death (the decay and death myth). The notion of contamination through contact springs from the conviction that the language brought into contact with one’s own must in some sense be inferior to it, a belief that derives from the barbarians myth, the barbarians, of course, being the culturally inferior group. This myth reaches far back to the world of ancient Greece and is probably evidence of a universal set of perceptions wherever a language community feels threatened from outside. When this nexus of myths is infused with the urge to standardise a language by making it “polite”, “refined”, or “legitimate”, it generates the fear of language change and the immutability myth. Once again, this language myth is not restricted to English.

In a sense, therefore, the nexus of myths presented in chapter 5 (and those that Swift satirises in chap. 7) are almost universal. Two myths in this group, however, appear to be peculiar to the English-speaking world, the good cli- matelgood soil myth (one that is derived from the conceptual metaphor A language is a plant) and the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth. It is of course conceivable that the former myth may turn up in examining the myths of other languages, although I have no data to confirm this hunch.

The third group of myths consists of more modern stories with a mythical character, like the English as a creole language myth (chap. 4) and the English as the global language myth (chap. 11). If we look closely at these new myths, there is some substance to the claim that they may have been started by linguists themselves. In the case of the English as a creole language myth, which has now generated lay interest in the discourse, this is definitely the case; it has now reached beyond the confines of the academic community. In the case of the English as the global language myth, we can be less sure of our facts, although it is certainly the case that a number of significant sociolinguists have contributed to promoting this idea.

  • [1] begin this final chapter as I ended the first, with figure 1.2, which has beenslightly reorganised from bottom to top as figure 12.1. Conceptual metaphorsto account for and understand language are the first stage of the processwhereby language ideologies are constructed. If those ideologies become partof a dominant hegemonic discourse, a discourse archive is constructed inwhich, as Jan Blommaert says in his book Discourse, macrosociological forcesand formations “define and determine what can be said, expressed, heard,and understood in particular societies, particular milieux, particular historical periods” (2005: 102). It has been my aim in the present book to show how language myths,derived as they are from statements made on the basis of a small number ofconceptual metaphors about language, have functioned discursively to produce ideologies of the history of the English language. I have ranged widelyfrom the Anglo-Saxon period through the period of transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English, to one of the central texts in the fourteenth century,
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