MYTHS AS STORIES
My account of the myths that drive the discourses of English began with my argument in the first section of chapter 1 that myths are communally told and shared stories that help members of the community to socially construct their worlds by “languaging” them and orienting their own individual lives to the perceived history of the community. Our own individual worlds and our changing identities within them are created through the telling of stories, but we are not generally aware of the fact that narration always contains an element of fiction.
For the sociolinguist, the stories that create the myths are not always easy to locate as concrete instantiations of social practice, although we know that they occur within the verbal interaction that takes place in a whole range of communities of practice in which we are ratified members. But in our present-day world, compared with the information we have inherited from the past, we have the inestimable advantage of being able to broadcast and record oral performances of discussions, arguments, casual conversations, school lessons and university lectures, parliamentary debates, and so on in which evidence of the myths may be found. For example, one story told in the corpus of conversations recorded from my own family concerns a man who was an inveterate user of the discourse marker you know, so much so that the storyteller felt it necessary to point out that, because they did not know his name, he and his mother would refer to him as “Mr You-know”. This sparked off a lively impromptu discussion of discourse markers, in which the participants, my own family members, who were all from the south of England, expressed their distaste at the use of certain discourse markers which they perceived to be from the North. They did so quite openly and without realising that they themselves occasionally used instantiations of those very same discourse markers during the ongoing conversation (cf. Watts 1989). The story was one small instantiation of the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth. A further small instantiation of the same myth is evident in the story told by Lesley Milroy (1999) of a woman from the North who found it extremely difficult to find employment in London on account of her northern accent. The example given in chapter 10 (from Cox [1991: 34]) of the Conservative politician Norman Tebbitt implying or openly stating in a programme on Radio 4 in 1985 that “the decline in the teaching of grammar had led directly to the rise in football hooliganism” was a small instantiation of a whole nexus of myths—the legitimate language myth, the barbarians myth—in which the failure to learn standard English had led to a moral decline involving hooliganism and violence.
Small stories of this kind could be narrated almost endlessly. They are not hard to find, and they offer the evidence that is required to substantiate the existence of the myths. The myths themselves cannot be said to represent objectively truthful accounts of the past, nor can we expect each telling of a myth to be the same. But they do contain a grain of truth, and as such they are an eminently useful means of accounting historically for present attitudes towards language. Myths tend to hover somewhere in the space between total objectivity and total fiction. For many, they may be represented as closer to truth than fiction, whereas for others, their fictional character may be much stronger. But the beliefs instantiated by myths still need to be taken seriously if hegemonic discourses on language are driven by those beliefs. In the previous chapter, for example, it is not enough to admit to the spread of English across the world if one does not at the same time analyse the effects of an unquestioning belief in English as the global language. Such beliefs can indeed lead to misguided language policies involving English (as shown by the example of Switzerland given in chapter 11) and to a conviction in countries in which English is the official language spoken by first-language speakers that one does not need to acquire languages other than English (as evident in the current dramatic situation with second-language teaching in the United Kingdom school systems).
If we hear or read a set of beliefs about language that are difficult to accept, we frequently classify the narration of those beliefs as a “myth”, thus using the term to refer to an untruth or a fabrication. This was the case in chapter 11 in Davies’ review article (1996) of Phillipson’s book Linguistic Imperialism, which accuses him of spreading the myth of linguicism. He objects quite strongly to the inference that he made in reading Phillipson’s book that the Applied Linguistics Department of the University of Edinburgh is the academic nerve-centre training ESL/EFL personnel for the British Council. I can feel a certain sympathy for Davies’s point, but his use of the term “myth” implies that linguicism is a fiction, an untruth, something that is discursively constructed by Phillipson and others. Within the discourse of review writing, it is almost a term of abuse. Phillipson, on the other hand, is no better, and he, too, uses the term “myth” to counter Davies’s criticism with the same set of negative connotations.
One important point that I have explicitly made in this book is that myths are stories that instantiate sets of communally shared beliefs. Fiction adheres to a myth by virtue of the fact that it is a story, a narrative act. Myths are certainly not lies—although Davies does not appear to be accusing Phillipson of lying. The grain of truth in a myth constitutes the central belief around which the story is woven and elaborated. We may not agree with the stories that are woven and elaborated, nor with the dominant discourses that are driven by such beliefs, but it is still up to us to discover the grain of truth.
Let us take Davies’ use of the expression “the myth of linguicism”. If we assume that there is a modern myth of linguicism—that people have been discriminated against socially and politically on the basis of the language variety they speak—there must surely be some truth in the myth. To find evidence
for the grain of truth, we first need to construct a meaning from the term “linguicism,” which is coined in analogy to the term “racism”. Skutnab- Kangas and Phillipson (1989: 455) have defined it, acceptably enough, as “ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and nonmaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language”. It is perfectly plausible to argue that discriminating against others socially and politically is a reprehensible act, regardless of whether the discrimination is based on language, gender, racial, ethnic, or religious differences. It is also perfectly reasonable to agree that the legitimation, effectuation and reproduction of the social structures through which power and resources are distributed should be questioned and, if found to be unjust, changed. So two questions need to be asked:
- 1. What evidence do we have that discrimination on the basis of language varieties has taken place or is taking place?
- 2. Is the discrimination made purely or largely on the basis of these linguistic differences?
The second question is a thorny one, since any act of social or political discrimination that sociolinguists may attribute to differences in language variety are often denied by the perpetrators and ascribed to other causes. This would mean that there is a certain relativity attached to the second question. But the first can be shown to hold in many of the myths dealt with in this book.
The three trials of William Hone in chapter 9 provide ample evidence to support the hypothesis that language was at the base of the attempted sociopolitical exclusion in 1817 of Hone and, through him, others of his social class. The attorney general, Sir Samuel Shepherd, goes to great lengths in each of the three trials to prove that the case of libel against Hone for publishing political satire based on commonly used texts in the established church is a question of moral and religious degradation and has nothing to do with class prejudices or with politics. But by suggesting that the lower classes are not fit to appreciate “the sort of topics which are artfully raised for them” by the original parodied Church texts, he also makes it perfectly plain that social repression of the lower classes is the real purpose of the trials. Hone is simply the scapegoat. Hone and his publishing activities are covertly represented as being a real danger to the hegemony of the “refined” language. The dogged way in which the three trials were carried through on three successive days despite the fact that the jury had acquitted Hone twice before the third trial is testimony to the authorities’ desire to victimise him.
A more explicit example of linguicism is to be found in the explanation offered in The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 for the rejection by the House of Commons of the two petitions for voting rights from Nottingham and Sheffield in 1793. The comment made was that “persons coming forward as petitioners should address the House in decent and respectful language”. Since the language of the petitioners was judged by members of Parliament not to be “decent and respectful”, their petition for universal suffrage was rejected on linguistic grounds. This is an explicit case of linguicism, the object of which was to discriminate politically, and therefore also socially, against the lower classes of society by not allowing them access to the democratic parliamentary process of policy making and legislative procedures. There could surely be no more blatant case than this of an attempt to use discourse “to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources” and, on the basis of language, to exclude those with the “wrong” variety of language from enjoying the right to those resources. With regard to the second question in this case, Parliament could simply claim that the petitioners did not fulfil the social prerequisites to have the right to vote. But the point is that it was precisely those social prerequisites that the petitioners wished to change so that they might be able to enjoy that right. So if linguicism is a myth, there is in fact a very large grain of truth to it. In the case of many of the myths examined in this book, the grain of truth is difficult to find, although the reasons for “running” the myth discursively are to be found in the sociohistorical, sociocultural conditions of its emergence. In the following section I shall illustrate this by looking at the longevity of English myth in a little more detail.
-  See chapter 11, note 9, in which I express diffidence at stating that these were the words actually usedby Tebbitt and that they have simply been transferred into direct speech by Cox. Without access to the originalrecording of the radio programme, I am obliged to hedge a little here. However, this does not alter the interpretation that the gist of Tebbitt’s argument is an instantiation of the legitimate language myth.
-  I use the plural here to indicate that the education system for England and Wales is different from thatof Scotland and that of Northern Ireland.
-  This is where Davies worked in 1996.
-  Obviously, such discrimination may also have other sources—differences of gender, ethnicity, religion,skin colour, and so on.