LINGUIST List 23.1783
Fri Apr 06 2012
Review: Applied Ling.; General Ling.; Ling. Theories; Socioling.: Watts (2011)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
Larry LaFond <llafond
Language Myths and the History of English
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AUTHOR: Richard J. WattsTITLE: Language Myths and the History of EnglishSERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in SociolinguisticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011
Larry LaFond, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, United States
SUMMARYIn 1998, Penguin published "Language Myths" (Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill,eds.) a popular little volume that responded to some common folk misconceptionsregarding language such as, "The media are ruining English" or "Some languagesare harder than others." Geared to the novice or the curious -- its intendedaudience -- the short essays in that volume suffered the understandable drawbackof superficial handling of the given topics. Richard J. Watts' volume, a recentcontribution to the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics series, does not at allshare 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 havebecome so deeply held that even professional language researchers may no longerimmediately recognize them as fictive. Watts discusses how conceptual metaphorsbecome the basis for the construction of language ideologies, color the waylanguage history is understood and, when widespread enough to become dominantdiscourses, 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 toquestion their underlying assumptions. Watts does not attempt so much to revisethe present accounts of the history of English, but to reveal the ways in whichmany present accounts rely upon these ubiquitous conceptual metaphors.
Chapters 1-3 discuss and illustrate the framework that Watts uses throughout thebook. Chapter 1 begins by arguing that "myths" about the history of Englishemerge from statements made possible first by commonly shared conceptualmetaphors, which gradually become articulated ideologically, forming a hegemonicdiscourse (eventually leading to the formation of "discourse archives") andthereafter powerfully shaping our thoughts about the history of English.Canonical histories arise that contain elements of reality but which areessentially repeated stories from which we do not even try to distanceourselves. Chapter 2 then provides a clear extended illustration of this,through a discussion of the Beowulf manuscript, by showing how a "myth of theancient language," arises in the nineteenth century as an attempt to establish alinguistic pedigree for English stronger than the facts permit. Chapter 3follows up on the "myth of the ancient language" by positing a "myth of theunbroken tradition," arguing that a careful examination of the Anglo-SaxonChronicles allows us to deconstruct this myth, drawing on a discussion of thefirst and second continuations of the Petersborough Chronicle, which Wattsbelieves provides counterevidence to the assumption that speakers of English,though oppressed after the Norman Conquest, held on to their language until itfinally usurped French. Amidst the pieces of counterevidence presented are themarked differences between the English of the scribes of the first and secondcontinuation, reflecting a shift towards "inscribed orality."
Chapter 4 discusses a more modern myth of "Middle English as a creole," a myththat assumes language contact between Anglo-Norman and Central French speakersof English from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries explains the development ofEnglish. Watts uses a 2006 internet discussion thread as a catalyst for hisargument. He highlights the differing ways "creole" is defined by users, grantsthat calling Middle English a creole is one possible way of accounting for themorphological simplifications and extensive borrowing, but questions whethersimplification and mixture are sufficient criteria for calling Middle English acreole. Watts puts forward the possibility of koinëisation with the formationof a new language variety and finds evidence against the creole hypothesis forEnglish in Danelaw texts, since these are marked by gradual changes from theninth to the late thirteenth century. The thrust of the chapter, however, isnot so much to argue a particular position regarding the creole hypothesis as itis to show that this hypothesis creates opportunities for mythologization.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 look at some myths that are instantiated by English, some ofwhich also extend more universally to language. Chapter 5 examines how the"myth of homogeneity" grew alongside the concepts of the nation-state orkultursprache 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. Thiscluster of myths (and many others), which feed into each other, are broken downinto "central myths" from which other myths are derived. A complex example ofthis type of myth building is given in Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, passagesof 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 betweenMiddle and Modern English, also takes up the myth of the "greatness" of Englishas part of the grandiosity of a vowel shift, similar in nature to the waygreatness is projected onto national languages of nation-states. Soundsshifting are standard features of language, but this vowel shift, labeled as"great," reeks of an underlying hegemonic discourse which coalesces into amodern standard English. It is this standardization that Chapter 7 turns to bylooking at Swift's Proposal non-canonically, taking full account of Swift'ssatirical style and the interpretative possibilities such a reading makespossible. Watt's detailed analysis of Swift's Proposal is intended to lead byexample, and on the basis of this example, Watts argues that researchers need todo more careful reading of the texts upon which they base their arguments, orrisk propagating more modern myths.
Chapters 8-10 deal with "politeness," each in differing ways. Chapter 8 arguesthat the myth of the standard language feeds into an ideology of politeness andprescriptivism. Since publishing English grammars in the eighteenth centurywas a profitable venture, one cannot dismiss that ideology here was driven bycommercial interests, alongside of which class and political distinctions couldbe reinforced through a prescriptive ideology. Politeness transforms intolegitimacy in Watt's discussion of the politicization of standard English inChapter 9. This chapter, entitled "Challenging the hegemony of standardEnglish," looks at language and working class movements at the beginning of thenineteenth century and also at William Hone, Peterloo, the Chartist Movement,and early industrialization, with its final move from an ideology of alegitimate 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 languageas a sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, tool of political oppression.Chapter 10 extends this discussion into the politicization of the language mythsin the post-Second World War era. Part of the argument here is that theeighteenth-century notion of "polite" was supplanted by the notion "educated" inthe reintroduction of grammar into the National Curriculum. The chapterconcludes with a discussion of what is meant by a "standard," contrasting theprocess of standardization, with its emphasis on conformity to top-down"educated" or "polite" norms, with that of non-standardization, which Wattsbelieves aims at mutual understanding, tolerance, negotiated meaning, acceptanceof creativity and innovation, and the pure pleasure of communication.
Chapter 11 extends the discussion of standardization one step further bytackling what Watts views as attempts by both linguists and non-linguists tocommodify English through an ideology yielding a belief in English as a globallanguage. Watts believes that deconstruction of this myth is critical, becauseeducational language policies are being set in motion based upon this belief.He gives as examples the favored status of English in Swiss schools or thebroader push for earlier introduction in English at the expense of the learningof 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 thefunnel, merged, and come out the other end as a standard language. This is aview that does not take stock of the significance of current non-standardvarieties, and in agreement with Blommaert represents an archive of "what can besaid, expressed, heard, and understood" about the history of English (2005:102). Watts argues here, as he does throughout the volume, for a deconstruction oflanguage ideologies in a way that allows us to adopt a positive attitude towardscreative variability and heterogeneity of the language. Equally important inhis eyes is that breaking free from ideologies and hegemonic discourse isnecessary for us to be able to offer alternative histories of English in all itsvarieties.
EVALUATIONAlthough weighty and serious in content, Language Myths and the History ofEnglish is written in a clear, organized, and understandable style that shouldbe accessible to almost anyone who fully engages the topic. It appears ideallysuited for advanced undergraduate or graduate students, both in terms ofreadability and content, but also because its incisive look at metaphors andmyth in an academic field could serve as a cautionary reminder to those who areembarking on careers of theory building.
There is much to applaud in this book. Watts succeeds in drawing back thecurtain to reveal the weak case upon which grand claims are sometimes made. Hisargument that these grand claims often take on a life of their own, creating adominant discourse archive, is persuasive. Linguists are members of a distinctdiscourse community and, like any such community, are certainly not immune fromdeveloping dominant attitudes, opinions and convictions. Of course, just becausea set of beliefs are widely held ideas by a discourse community does not meanthose beliefs are necessarily wrong. Mythos itself is not necessarily false ortrue, but a deeply held account that is resistant to challenge (cf. Lincoln2000); nevertheless, when hegemonic discourse about language is extended inunanalyzed ways, possibilities for error increase, and it is to these unanalyzedways of speaking about the history of English that Watts rightly wishes to drawattention.
It is fair to say that Watts also succeeded (like Costa 2009) in the drawingattention to language history as a unique site of both myth creation andideological affirmation. Despite the observations of others (e.g., Heehs1994:1) that myth and history, "are often considered to be antithetical modes ofexplanation," Watts has persuasively argued that even those, perhaps especiallythose, who work quite carefully within scientific frameworks, are stillsometimes guilty of failing to seriously question the validity of theirassumptions, particularly when these assumptions are built upon a longstandingset of beliefs that have risen to a status of being beyond questioning. Forexample, as Watts himself notes in a passing remark on homogeneity, structuralistand generative approaches to language change typically ignore the creativevariability of language in use, and rely upon such a homogeneity myth to managethe task of theory building. Stepping outside of the conceptual frameworks towhich one is committed is done with difficulty, if at all, as might be arguedfrom 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 ofEnglish globalization, for example MA students entering the field of Englishlanguage teaching.
One could quibble with Watts' extensive use of the word "myth." While it istrue that myth is "notoriously difficult to define" (Gentile 2011:85), for"myth" to be a meaningful term it must have some boundaries. There is noindication 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 pointsthat, for Watts, everything is a "mythic nail." In certain places it seems thatmyth 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 fromassumptions, and while it is useful to challenge assumptions, theory buildingmust of necessity operate from them. Making presuppositions explicit is a bestpractice 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 shouldknow that we operate today with ideas that will someday (perhaps quite soon) bedebunked 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 berevealed. In as far as this book reminds readers of the tentative nature of alltheorizing, well and good. Such a reminder is always useful.
Watts' volume is definitely a worthwhile read. In every chapter, he raisesquestions regarding the history of English that deserve better answers than theyhave thus far received, and Watts brings together in this work many creative andinsightful ideas that may help us think through questions in the history ofEnglish. For example, he provides figures on "Degrees of mediacy and formalityin written and oral text genres" (58) and "The cognitive sources of Higden'smyths" (131) that serve not only to illustrate specific arguments at thosepoints in the text, but also provide us with helpful analytical tools for futureresearch. There is still a lot of work to be done, and though Watts does noteven attempt to provide us with an alternative history of English which is freeof myth, he does provide signposts and tools that may help us navigate our wayas we work to analyze relationships between present and past varieties ofEnglish. The stories we may encounter on those paths may prove to be even moreinteresting than the stories we have already created.
REFERENCESBauer, 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. NewYork: Pantheon.
Gentile, John, S. 2011. Prologue: Defining Myth: An Introduction to the SpecialIssue 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. InSinfree Makoni & Alastair Pennycook (eds.), Disinventing and reconstitutinglanguages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 90-115.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERLarry LaFond studies the history and development of dialectal variation,second language acquisition, and theory and practice in language teachereducation. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in linguisticsand TESOL teacher education. He received his PhD in linguistics from theUniversity of South Carolina in 2001 and works at Southern IllinoisUniversity Edwardsville as Associate Professor of English and AssociateDean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Page Updated: 06-Apr-2012