THE FUNNEL VIEW OF THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH

My major interest in unearthing and deconstructing the myths has been to argue in favour of histories of language other than the conventional ones of the standard. The canonical way of dealing with the history of English is to start with “Old English”, a term which I have assiduously tried to avoid using, and then to move through the familiar periodisation of Middle English, Early Modern English and Late Modern English. The end product of the process is inevitably a focus on the modern standard language, and the starting point a range of varieties of Anglo-Saxon.[1] The perspective on the history of the language is thus rather like a funnel, in which a number of varieties are poured in at the wide top of the funnel and standard English comes out of the narrow neck (cf. fig. 12.2). The fate of the original varieties poured in at the top and others that may have arisen at a later stage are generally not taken into consideration.

The funnel view constitutes a modern archive of “what can be said, expressed, heard, and understood” (Blommaert 2005: 102) about the history of English. The contributions to Watts and Trudgill (2002) argue for a wider range of histories to cover these varieties, and a focus on alternative histories of English is highly likely to challenge canonical views of the history of English. Other publications, including the use of media such as television, have already begun to challenge the hegemony of the dominant version of the history of English (McCrum, Cran & MacNeil 1986; McArthur 1998; Elmes 1999; Crystal 2002). One way to crack open the archive is to focus more consciously on a range of alternative histories and to investigate the language ideologies that constitute the canonical version. The discourse leading from myth

The funnel view of the history of a language to ideology in figur

figure 12.2. The funnel view of the history of a language to ideology in figure 12.1 is itself historical, and it rests on or is driven by myths. So the present book has not been a “new” history of English, but rather a blueprint as to how to challenge and deconstruct the underlying myths.

One excellent example of a book-length alternative history—which presents itself as a “social and cultural history”—is Wales’s book Northern English. At one stage in her argument, Wales makes a very perceptive point about the neglect of “the provincial voices rooted in the oral traditions of ballad, song and music-hall”, and she develops this point further as follows:

Both kinds of histories [linguistic and literary] on the one hand assume mistakenly that literacy and the written standard killed off both oracy and dialect writing (although the relationship between the standard, the production of dialect and the representation of dialect was complex); and on the other hand underestimate the strength and potency of Northern English as living speech used by both working class and middle classes. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is significantly because of this vibrant body of literature, and later the music-hall to which it is related, that Northerners themselves became more conscious than ever before of their own regional identities and differences: dialect was not only spoken but consciously performed and enacted for both entertainment and edification on a scale hitherto unknown. This in turn promoted still more creativity and, increasingly, local civic pride. (2006: 128-129)

Wales’s point is well taken here. Not only were songs sung, tales told, humorous and semi-serious ditties performed, drama enacted, and narrative and poetry written in dialect; they are still being sung, told and written in nonstandard varieties at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A whole set of vibrant, successful or tragic lives have been lived by other Englishes both within Britain and throughout the world in the speakers and writers of those varieties, and although we know this to be the case, as sociolinguists we have tended to turn the other way.

One brief illustration must suffice here to indicate the rich vein of “nonstandard” Englishes and the alternative stories that can be revealed by unearthing them and by looking at them against the background of the language myths governing the dominant discourse of the history of English. Songs from the North of England that were common in the nineteenth century may still be heard today in certain cultural niches such as folk clubs, ceilidhs and folk festivals. One such song is commonly known as “The Oldham Weaver”. Wales reminds us that the song is printed out in full in chapter 4 of the novel Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and she notes that it was circulating in (at least) 13 different versions at the time that Gaskell wrote the novel (2006: 122 n. 5). She suggests that it was composed after the Battle of Waterloo.[2] However, we know that a poem called “Jone o’ Grinfilt” was

written in 1805 by Joseph Lees in the Oldham dialect of Lancashire telling the story of a naive man called Jone (or John) living in the village of Greenfield who believed that the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire was the border between England and France. On the assumption that the French were across the Pennines in Yorkshire, he sets out for Oldham to enlist in the army. Some time later a song was circulated with the title “Jone o’ Grinfilt junior”, but there is no obvious topical connection between the poem and the song apart from the hint that the song was about the son of the naive hero of Lees’ poem.

“Jone o’ Grinfilt junior” began to circulate sometime after 1815 and was frequently given the title of “The Oldham Weaver”, “The Hand-loom Weaver”, or “The Poor Cotton Weaver”. Its topic is the hard times encountered by hand-loom weavers when steam-driven power looms were first introduced, forcing the wholesale shift of workers into the mills. The song, still sung today, goes under the title “The Four Loom Weaver”.

Wales suggests that Gaskell’s inclusion of the song was politically motivated to attract the reader’s attention to the continuing deprivations of workers in the cotton industry in the 1840s. Chapter 4 of Mary Barton is centred on Mary’s visit to old Alice Wilson, who invites her to tea. Alice’s female lodger, a young woman called Margaret, comes down from a room upstairs to join the party. The narrator describes the poverty of Alice’s house and has Alice tell the two young women of how she left her girlhood home in the hills to find work in Manchester but never had an opportunity to go home for a visit. Alice then suggests that Margaret should sing “Th’ Owdham Weaver” for Mary on the grounds that “she can make me cry at any time by singing [it]”. At this point, the narrator addresses the reader directly, using the second-person pronoun “you”, as follows:

Do you know “The Oldham Weaver”? Not unless you are Lancashire born and

bred, for it is a complete Lancashire ditty. I will copy it for you.

She uses the standard English title of the song when she addresses the reader, while allowing Alice to use what we take to be the local dialect in addressing Mary and Margaret. However, had Gaskell made a more consistent attempt to represent the dialect in the characters’ speech, the second word in the title would be spelt something like . At other points in Alice’s story preceding the performance of the song, concessions are made to the dialect, for example, “I was very frabbit with him” (where Gaskell glosses frabbit as “peevish” for her readers), “she were always ailing, and he were always in trouble”, “I never seed such a bonny bit anywhere”, and so on. But, in general, the conversation is held in standard English, in particular when Mary Barton speaks.

The text of the song is then given in a dialect version with two concessions to the standard English reader, in which clem is glossed as “to starve with hunger” and pick ower is glossed as “to throw the shuttle in hand-loom

weaving”. After the song the narrator again addresses the reader, admitting that it may sound humorous, but stressing that the humour is “near to pathos”:

The air to which this is sung is a kind of droning recitative, depending much on expression and feeling. To read it, it may, perhaps, seem humorous; but it is that humour which is near akin to pathos, and to those who have seen the distress it describes it is a powerfully pathetic song. (Gaskell 1849: chap. 4)

As Gaskell knows only too well, very few of her readers will have seen “the distress it describes”. The two metadiscursive addresses to the readers immediately prior to and following on from the text of the song thus indicate that the narrator is aware that she is giving her middle- and upper-class readers access to “unknown England”.[3]

Novel writers who were concerned to expose the “state of England question”—Elizabeth Gaskell, Benjamin Disraeli and many others—were faced with a dilemma. Their attempts to reproduce dialect in the written medium, if too sweeping, would, in the eyes of the publishers, have put off potential readers.[4] Gaskell’s way out of the dilemma in chapter 4 of Mary Barton is to represent her characters with a few strokes of dialect and to refer the reader directly to the dialect text of the “The Oldham Weaver” commenting briefly on its content. This is almost equivalent to a polite nod of recognition in the direction of dialect speakers, but without any doubt, it reveals that the only legitimate language in which one could write was, even in the first half of the nineteenth century, standard English. By extension, dialect, or any other form of nonstandard English, was illegitimate and subject to censure, much of which carried moral overtones taken from the polite language myth. Those who were unable to sympathise with the plight of the working classes and their obvious deprivations looked upon them as morally depraved, socially inferior and in dire need of education and conversion to the “true” religion.

  • [1] Even in the period of “Old English” there is also a tendency to assume that the literary West Saxonvariety of the tenth and eleventh centuries was a “West Saxon” standard language, and this is all too oftengeneralised to cover the whole area in which Anglo-Saxon was spoken.
  • [2] I have my doubts as to whether it makes much sense to talk about folk songs being “composed”. Mostof the time, we simply do not know how they came into existence and were diffused among the community.
  • [3] The reference here is to a collection of descriptions made by social explorers into the depressed areasof industrial England edited by Peter Keating, with the title Into Unknown England 1866-1913: Selections fromthe Social Explorers.
  • [4] Cf. Wales’s discussion of the connections Emily Вго^ё made between dialect and “poverty, coarsenessand religious fanaticism” related to her uncompromising representation of the Yorkshire dialect of the dalesarea in the character of Joseph in Wuthering Heights (2006: 121 n. 3).
 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >