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Review of  Language Myths and the History of English

Reviewer: Larry L. LaFond
Book Title: Language Myths and the History of English
Book Author: Richard J. Watts
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.1783

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AUTHOR: Richard J. Watts
TITLE: Language Myths and the History of English
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Larry LaFond, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, United States

In 1998, Penguin published “Language Myths” (Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill, eds.)
a popular little volume that responded to some common folk misconceptions
regarding language such as, “The media are ruining English” or “Some languages
are harder than others.” Geared to the novice or the curious -- its intended
audience -- the short essays in that volume suffered the understandable drawback
of superficial handling of the given topics. Richard J. Watts’ volume, a recent
contribution to the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics series, does not at all share
that flaw. Twelve meaty chapters (338 pages, with references and index) are
organized around a much deeper, fully articulated exploration of beliefs,
assumptions, or “myths” related to the history of English, many of which have
become so deeply held that even professional language researchers may no longer
immediately recognize them as fictive. Watts discusses how conceptual
metaphors become the basis for the construction of language ideologies, color the
way language history is understood and, when widespread enough to become
dominant discourses, become orthodoxies embedded within our cognition, so
strong that, even when faced with them, people are unlikely to relinquish them
fully. Extending Foucault’s ‘archive’ (1972) and Bourdieu’s ‘symbolic power’
(1977), Watts’ main goal is to systematically uncover and deconstruct these
myths and to question their underlying assumptions. Watts does not attempt so
much to revise the present accounts of the history of English, but to reveal the
ways in which many present accounts rely upon these ubiquitous conceptual

Chapters 1-3 discuss and illustrate the framework that Watts uses throughout the
book. Chapter 1 begins by arguing that “myths” about the history of English
emerge from statements made possible first by commonly shared conceptual
metaphors, which gradually become articulated ideologically, forming a hegemonic
discourse (eventually leading to the formation of “discourse archives”) and
thereafter powerfully shaping our thoughts about the history of English. Canonical
histories arise that contain elements of reality but which are essentially repeated
stories from which we do not even try to distance ourselves. Chapter 2 then
provides a clear extended illustration of this, through a discussion of the Beowulf
manuscript, by showing how a “myth of the ancient language,” arises in the
nineteenth century as an attempt to establish a linguistic pedigree for English
stronger than the facts permit. Chapter 3 follows up on the “myth of the ancient
language” by positing a “myth of the unbroken tradition,” arguing that a careful
examination of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles allows us to deconstruct this myth,
drawing on a discussion of the first and second continuations of the Petersborough
Chronicle, which Watts believes provides counterevidence to the assumption that
speakers of English, though oppressed after the Norman Conquest, held on to their
language until it finally usurped French. Amidst the pieces of counterevidence
presented are the marked differences between the English of the scribes of the
first and second continuation, reflecting a shift towards “inscribed orality.”

Chapter 4 discusses a more modern myth of “Middle English as a creole,” a myth
that assumes language contact between Anglo-Norman and Central French
speakers of English from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries explains the
development of English. Watts uses a 2006 internet discussion thread as a
catalyst for his argument. He highlights the differing ways “creole” is defined by
users, grants that calling Middle English a creole is one possible way of
accounting for the morphological simplifications and extensive borrowing, but
questions whether simplification and mixture are sufficient criteria for calling
Middle English a creole. Watts puts forward the possibility of koinëisation with the
formation of a new language variety and finds evidence against the creole
hypothesis for English in Danelaw texts, since these are marked by gradual
changes from the ninth to the late thirteenth century. The thrust of the chapter,
however, is not so much to argue a particular position regarding the creole
hypothesis as it is to show that this hypothesis creates opportunities for

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 look at some myths that are instantiated by English, some of
which also extend more universally to language. Chapter 5 examines how the
“myth of homogeneity” grew alongside the concepts of the nation-state or
kultursprache in the nineteenth century. Homogeneity is elevated to “purity,”
change may occur through the “contamination of contact,” with “barbarian”
tongues, with resulting variations as “corruption” of the language. This cluster of
myths (and many others), which feed into each other, are broken down into “central
myths” from which other myths are derived. A complex example of this type of
myth building is given in Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, passages of which may
be used to see central and derived myths, early and modern. Chapter 5, while
focused on the “Great Vowel Shift” as a dividing line between Middle and Modern
English, also takes up the myth of the “greatness” of English as part of the
grandiosity of a vowel shift, similar in nature to the way greatness is projected onto
national languages of nation-states. Sounds shifting are standard features of
language, but this vowel shift, labeled as “great,” reeks of an underlying hegemonic
discourse which coalesces into a modern standard English. It is this
standardization that Chapter 7 turns to by looking at Swift’s Proposal non-
canonically, taking full account of Swift’s satirical style and the interpretative
possibilities such a reading makes possible. Watt’s detailed analysis of Swift’s
Proposal is intended to lead by example, and on the basis of this example, Watts
argues that researchers need to do more careful reading of the texts upon which
they base their arguments, or risk propagating more modern myths.

Chapters 8-10 deal with “politeness,” each in differing ways. Chapter 8 argues that
the myth of the standard language feeds into an ideology of politeness and
prescriptivism. Since publishing English grammars in the eighteenth century was
a profitable venture, one cannot dismiss that ideology here was driven by
commercial interests, alongside of which class and political distinctions could be
reinforced through a prescriptive ideology. Politeness transforms into legitimacy in
Watt’s discussion of the politicization of standard English in Chapter 9. This
chapter, entitled “Challenging the hegemony of standard English,” looks at
language and working class movements at the beginning of the nineteenth century
and also at William Hone, Peterloo, the Chartist Movement, and early
industrialization, with its final move from an ideology of a legitimate language to a
persistent division between “vulgar” and “standard,” strengthening the claims of
those who possessed education, means, and a “refined” language. The result of
which was the instrumentalization of language as a sometimes subtle, sometimes
not so subtle, tool of political oppression. Chapter 10 extends this discussion into
the politicization of the language myths in the post-Second World War era. Part of
the argument here is that the eighteenth century notion of “polite” was supplanted
by the notion “educated” in the reintroduction of grammar into the National
Curriculum. The chapter concludes with a discussion of what is meant by a
“standard,” contrasting the process of standardization, with its emphasis on
conformity to top-down “educated” or “polite” norms, with that of non-
standardization, which Watts believes aims at mutual understanding, tolerance,
negotiated meaning, acceptance of creativity and innovation, and the pure
pleasure of communication.

Chapter 11 extends the discussion of standardization one step further by tackling
what Watts views as attempts by both linguists and non-linguists to commodify
English through an ideology yielding a belief in English as a global language.
Watts believes that deconstruction of this myth is critical, because educational
language policies are being set in motion based upon this belief. He gives as
examples the favored status of English in Swiss schools or the broader push for
earlier introduction in English at the expense of the learning of other languages.

In the concluding chapter, Watts reprises the main themes of the book,
emphasizing that most accounts of the history of English assume a “funnel view”
in which many varieties of English/Anglo-Saxon have gone into one end of the
funnel, merged, and come out the other end as a standard language. This is a
view that does not take stock of the significance of current non-standard varieties,
and in agreement with Blommaert represents an archive of “what can be said,
expressed, heard, and understood” about the history of English (2005:102). Watts
argues here, as he does throughout the volume, for a deconstruction of language
ideologies in a way that allows us to adopt a positive attitude towards creative
variability and heterogeneity of the language. Equally important in his eyes is that
breaking free from ideologies and hegemonic discourse is necessary for us to be
able to offer alternative histories of English in all its varieties.

Although weighty and serious in content, Language Myths and the History of
English is written in a clear, organized, and understandable style that should be
accessible to almost anyone who fully engages the topic. It appears ideally suited
for advanced undergraduate or graduate students, both in terms of readability and
content, but also because its incisive look at metaphors and myth in an academic
field could serve as a cautionary reminder to those who are embarking on careers
of theory building.

There is much to applaud in this book. Watts succeeds in drawing back the
curtain to reveal the weak case upon which grand claims are sometimes made.
His argument that these grand claims often take on a life of their own, creating a
dominant discourse archive, is persuasive. Linguists are members of a distinct
discourse community and, like any such community, are certainly not immune
from developing dominant attitudes, opinions and convictions. Of course, just
because a set of beliefs are widely held ideas by a discourse community does not
mean those beliefs are necessarily wrong. Mythos itself is not necessarily false or
true, but a deeply held account that is resistant to challenge (cf. Lincoln 2000);
nevertheless, when hegemonic discourse about language is extended in
unanalyzed ways, possibilities for error increase, and it is to these unanalyzed
ways of speaking about the history of English that Watts rightly wishes to draw

It is fair to say that Watts also succeeded (like Costa 2009) in the drawing
attention to language history as a unique site of both myth creation and ideological
affirmation. Despite the observations of others (e.g., Heehs 1994:1) that myth and
history, “are often considered to be antithetical modes of explanation,” Watts has
persuasively argued that even those, perhaps especially those, who work quite
carefully within scientific frameworks, are still sometimes guilty of failing to
seriously question the validity of their assumptions, particularly when these
assumptions are built upon a longstanding set of beliefs that have risen to a status
of being beyond questioning. For example, as Watts himself notes in a passing
remark on homogeneity, structuralist and generative approaches to language
change typically ignore the creative variability of language in use, and rely upon
such a homogeneity myth to manage the task of theory building. Stepping
outside of the conceptual frameworks to which one is committed is done with
difficulty, if at all, as might be argued from the tightly held myth of English as a
global language (Pennycook 2007), even among many who have been exposed to
critiques of the ubiquitous claims of English globalization, for example MA
students entering the field of English language teaching.

One could quibble with Watts' extensive use of the word “myth.” While it is true
that myth is “notoriously difficult to define” (Gentile 2011:85), for “myth” to be a
meaningful term it must have some boundaries. There is no indication in this
volume, for example, of a notion or belief that is “not-myth.” If “deconstruction” is
the hammer, one does get the sense at points that, for Watts, everything is a
“mythic nail.” In certain places it seems that myth is being used as just another
word for “hypothesis.” What distinguishes, for example, the “myth of the
creolization of English” from an “English-as-Creole Hypothesis?” Hypothesis
creation typically proceeds from assumptions, and while it is useful to challenge
assumptions, theory building must of necessity operate from them. Making
presuppositions explicit is a best practice in theory building, but it is unclear how
much is gained by stamping “myth” on a hypothesis. Those with even a basic
awareness of linguistics should know that we operate today with ideas that will
someday (perhaps quite soon) be debunked and replaced, though this does not
paralyze us from using what we “know” to see where it will take us and to see what
further insights can be revealed. In as far as this book reminds readers of the
tentative nature of all theorizing, well and good. Such a reminder is always useful.

Watts’ volume is definitely a worthwhile read. In every chapter, he raises
questions regarding the history of English that deserve better answers than they
have thus far received, and Watts brings together in this work many creative and
insightful ideas that may help us think through questions in the history of English.
For example, he provides figures on “Degrees of mediacy and formality in written
and oral text genres” (58) and “The cognitive sources of Higden’s myths” (131) that
serve not only to illustrate specific arguments at those points in the text, but also
provide us with helpful analytical tools for future research. There is still a lot of
work to be done, and though Watts does not even attempt to provide us with an
alternative history of English which is free of myth, he does provide signposts and
tools that may help us navigate our way as we work to analyze relationships
between present and past varieties of English. The stories we may encounter on
those paths may prove to be even more interesting than the stories we have
already created.

Bauer, Laurie & Peter Trudgill (eds.). 1998. Language Myths. New York: Penguin.

Blommaert, Jan. 2005. Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Costa, James. 2009. Language History as Charter Myth? Scots and the
(Re)Invention of Scotland. Scottish Language 28. 1-25.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. Archeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith.
New York: Pantheon.

Gentile, John, S. 2011. Prologue: Defining Myth: An Introduction to the Special
Issue on Storytelling and Myth. Storytelling, Self, Society 7(2). 85-90.

Heehs, Peter. 1994. Myth, History, and Theory. History and Theory 33(1). 1-19.

Lincoln, Bruce. 2000. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pennycook, Alastair. 2007. The Myth of English as an International Language. In
Sinfree Makoni & Alastair Pennycook (eds.), Disinventing and reconstituting
languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 90-115.

Larry LaFond studies the history and development of dialectal variation, second language acquisition, and theory and practice in language teacher education. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in linguistics and TESOL teacher education. He received his PhD in linguistics from the University of South Carolina in 2001 and works at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

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