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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Language myths and the history of English


At the basis of all the myths presented in this book is the linguistic homogeneity myth. The myth assumes that a language should be a coherent, homogeneous system that all its speakers use, or at least should use. It expresses a teleology of language in which the end goal, the ultimate purpose of the process of historical development, should be some kind of perfection. But what would that perfection consist of? Must the language be free of any taint or blemish? If so, what kind of taint or blemish can a language have? Must the language be logically consistent? If so, linguists will admit that this can never be totally the case. Must it, in the terminology of Shaftesbury (see chap. 8), display decorum and grace and show perfect symmetry and order? If so, how would we define these qualities in reference to a language? Or must it simply be superior to all other languages?

Questions such as these have never been adequately addressed, largely because they cannot be adequately answered. But they remain set in people’s minds as the ultimate goal(s) of the history of a language, and those who firmly believe in these goals use the myth, and all the other myths derived from it, to justify the means of achieving them. Imagine a world in which the goals of linguistic perfection and purity were achieved. Of what use would the perfect language be? It would still need to change and be adaptable to suit the needs of a changing world. Johnson’s position in The Plan of an English Dictionary (1747) was that any change must inevitably be change for the worse. Reaching perfection, therefore, is equivalent to arriving in a static world in which no further change is possible.

So the linguistic homogeneity myth is a double-edged sword. It drives a discourse which aims at purity and perfection, but it leads to a situation in which stasis, not dynamism, is the ultimate goal. In the myths that we have looked at, homogeneity may be interpreted to mean that a language is a recognisable unity clearly distinguished from other linguistic systems, and, not

infrequently, this implies an assumption of superiority over other languages. This attitude towards the homogeneity of languages is revealed in Higden’s Polychronicon, and the myths that are derived from it are the pure language myth, which holds that the language should retain its assumed purity when confronted by other languages; and the contamination through contact myth, which holds that contact with other languages inevitably leads to loss of purity, that is, to contamination and ultimately to decay and death (the decay and death myth), and that those who do not speak the language either have an inferior language or none at all (the barbarians myth). The pure language myth is still with us today, and not just with respect to English (see chapter 11 on the assumed “purity” of the Swiss German dialects). It is closely linked to the contamination through contact myth by way of the assumed reasons for loss of purity (see the discussion of the discourse of verbal hygiene revealed by Nyffenegger’s research in chapter 11).

Homogeneity also refers to a state of affairs in which all speakers of English have equal command of the linguistic system of the standard language and use it in their daily lives. A homogeneous system is a perfect system that answers to all the needs of the community of its speakers and writers (the perfect language myth), but, as we have seen, it is also a static system, one in which, as Johnson’s position implies, language change does not and should not take place (the immutability myth). But such a language does not exist, nor can it or will it ever exist—at least not as a variety of human language. It remains a goal in the minds of those who would standardise language to the extent that, as a perfect, unchangeable system, it can serve as the one acceptable language variety of the nation-state. The conceptualisation of homogeneity as perfection leads to the automatic discrimination of those who speak some other variety, and the myth becomes transformed into the legitimate language myth, with all its sociopolitical consequences, some of which were discussed in chapter 9. The perfect language, conceptualised as a totally harmonious and symmetrical system, refers to polite (or polished, “refined”) language, which was then claimed to be the possession of the upper, polite segments of society (the polite language myth). As such, it paved the way for the notion of the legitimate language of the nation-state and helped to construct the kinds of social class distinctions that dogged British society till the end of the twentieth century. It was instrumental in discriminating against all other languages and language varieties which were not legitimate. In summary, this is the product of the funnel view of the history of English.

The myth of linguistic homogeneity revealed in the fourteenth century by Higden’s work had been in existence for a much greater length of time. It represents an attempt to establish English in opposition to other language varieties in competition with it, but because it did not emerge within the framework of an ideology of standardisation, it did not contribute to social stratification and sociopolitical discrimination. Once English was consciously subjected to the standardisation process in the eighteenth century, it became politicised as the single legitimate form of language. This new and pernicious kind of linguistic homogeneity was used to drive the legitimate language myth, and, in the twentieth century the educated language myth. The canonical discourse of the history of English, the funnel view, has since taken on the trappings of a discourse archive governing the law of what can be “said, expressed, heard and understood” to be the history of English.

The sociolinguistic view of language change, however, takes on board Weinreich, Labov and Herzog’s principle of structured heterogeneity. My very first point in chapter 1 was to establish a mode within which I could see the myths as the product of a set of conceptual metaphors about language. I proposed to take what I call a sociocognitive view of language in which human language functions cognitively as a mediator between our own individual physical, social and mental worlds, on the one hand, and the expansion of those individual mental worlds in potentially infinite ways, on the other. Social structure cannot exist without human beings using human language with one another, and the cognitive constructions of language in individuals cannot exist if those constructions had not been acquired socially. This involves us in three paradoxes:

  • 1. The homogeneity/heterogeneityparadox: A language is not, and never can be, a unitary, homogeneous system because the people using it need flexibility at all times to adapt it to the purposes of the current social practice. Paradox: There is an in-built heterogeneity in all human language. The language myths constructed cognitively to explain, justify and ratify the concept Language A are based on notions of perfection, purity and homogeneity.
  • 2. The unique distinguishabilityparadox: Although Language A may share a large number of constructions or construction types with Language B, it nevertheless has a certain number of constructions that allow the researcher to proclaim it to be a unique language. Paradox: This does not prevent speakers of A or B from communicating freely and easily with one another, and it may also mean that those same speakers may not perceive A or B to be uniquely distinguishable from each other at all.
  • 3. The language-as-a-propertyparadox: The language system is the property of its speakers. Paradox: Speakers who are not ratified members of the group may still pass as such if they have an equal command of the language variety and if the language variety shared by the group is taken as one of the group’s fundamental defining properties.

Rather than contaminate the host language, language contact situations create the external motivations required for change, since potential change is inherent in the pragmatic concern to negotiate meaning in social interaction. This is not to deny that change is often encouraged by the internal structure of the language system, but no change can occur of its own accord. I go so far as to suggest that any instantiation of social practice between speakers sharing linguistic constructions is a language contact situation. If participants in social practice perceive themselves to be using the “same” language, the degree of comprehensibility among the interactants is likely to be high-to-very-high, but innovations may still be introduced by one or other of the speakers.

So why do we need to concern ourselves with language myths? After all, the myths help to construct a view of language that is anathema to the very notion of language change. I have argued in this final chapter that they have even helped to construct a discourse archive that historical sociolinguists must break away from. We can break out of that mode only by taking on a positive attitude towards the natural heterogeneity of language in which variability, innovation, creativity, flexibility and potential are emphasised. We need to know about the myths, as well as the ideologies and discourse archives that have been constructed from them, if we are to be able to present alternative histories of the whole range of varieties of English. But the myths will never go away. They will continue to exist and get in the way of an honest appraisal of English in all its amazing varieties. They will continue to influence people who maintain that they “speak English perfectly”, or that the only valid English worth teaching to second-language learners is some form of standard English, or that there are better or worse speakers of English, or that there is some kind of connection between language variety and the speaker’s moral character. We will never be able to overcome these lay conceptualisations of language, precisely because they are built on mythical beliefs, but, as sociolinguists, we need to know as much as we can about the myths themselves.

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