Friday, April 16, 2021
04:16 AM (GMT +5)

Go Back   CSS Forums > CSS Optional subjects > Group V > English Literature

English Literature Notes and Topics on Eng.Literature here

Reply Share Thread: Submit Thread to Facebook Facebook     Submit Thread to Twitter Twitter     Submit Thread to Google+ Google+    
LinkBack Thread Tools Search this Thread
Old Monday, May 28, 2012
kiyani's Avatar
Senior Member
Join Date: Nov 2009
Location: Pakistan
Posts: 185
Thanks: 284
Thanked 161 Times in 96 Posts
kiyani will become famous soon enough
Cool The myth of English as a global language

The myth of English as a global language

E nglish spelling is notoriously inconsistent, and some have gone further, calling it “the world’s most awesome mess” or “an insult to human intelligence” (both these from linguists, one American, one Austrian). Maybe this is just because our alphabet only has twenty-six letters to represent more than forty phonemes, or distinctive speech-sounds, and some of those – notably q and x – are not pulling their weight, while j is not allowed to (see “John” but also “George”). If we gave s and z a consistent value (“seazon”) and extended this to k and c (“klok” and “sertain”), we could free c up for other duties, such as maybe representing ch, as once it did. But then there are all the vowels . . . .

How did this unsystematic system come about? And is it really that bad? Some say that there are only a few hundred deeply irregular words, but the trouble is that most of them are common. Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle even went so far as to claim that we have “close to an optimal system”, though that takes a deal of argument to convince. The History of English Spelling does not, in any case, try to resolve the dispute. It is based on a very large collection of data made by the late Christopher Upward – much of which has had to be excluded, though available from – put in order by George Davidson. Successive chapters look at the way words were spelled in Old and Middle English, how Franco-Latin and other words were dealt with, before going on to “The Exotic Input”. Each chapter is organized by letters, in alphabetical order. This is not, in other words, a book easily read. The most convenient way to use it may be to look up individual words for their histories in the forty-page word index.

Richard J. Watts’s Language Myths and the History of English has a much more evident polemical and narrative structure. It is concerned to correct what the author sees as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing system of myths about English, which have been deployed in the service of elitist and often nationalist ideology. The trouble is, one person’s myth is someone else’s securely established datum, and vice versa.

One can agree that there are some familiar metaphors applied to language generally, and sometimes more particularly to English, which should not be taken too far. Watts notes the metaphor of language as a human being – which means it can have qualities applied to it, like “noble” or “healthy” or “diseased” – and also language as family member (French as a “daughter” of Latin), or language as geological formation (so English has “strata”). The dangerous one as regards English, I would suggest, is language as threatened female, whose “purity” is continually being “violated” or “polluted” by vulgarisms, Americanisms, anything one doesn’t happen to like. If one pursued this image, one would have to say that English, far from being a pure maiden, looks like a woman who has appeared out of some distant fen, had more partners than Moll Flanders, learned a lot in the process, and is now running a house of negotiable affection near an international airport. But metaphors can be taken too far.

Watts’s first assaults are on the myths of English as ancient, and of the unbroken tradition of English. He seems in neither case to be on sure ground. The first straw men set up to be demolished are Richard Chenevix-Trench (1855) and Thomas KingtonOliphant (1878), neither of them any longer authoritative. In any case I cannot see what objection there is to the former’s belief that “the beginnings of Old English go well back into the past beyond the written evidence we possess”. Of course they do. Just as every creature now alive has an ancestry going back to the primordial ooze – if it didn’t have such an ancestry, it wouldn’t be there – so every language in the world (except maybe the artificially invented ones like Esperanto) has an ancestry going far back into prehistory. Along the way, there have been continual changes, mutations, even speciation – the question of where Vulgar Latin turns into French, or Early Runic becomes Old Norse, is a judgement call. However, one powerful reason for calling the language Anglo-Saxons spoke “Old English”, a custom Watts rejects, is that that’s what they called it: first englisc, and then ald englis.

Watts furthermore thinks that the core of the “English is ancient” myth is the status of Beowulf, and that the poem is just not ancient: “there is no evidence at all to suggest a later date for Beowulf [he means earlier] than the first decade of the eleventh century”. Both beliefs are mistaken. No one thinks that Beowulf is the oldest English text. Quite what is, is a good question. The runic inscription on the Ruthwell Cross? The long but still mostly undeciphered inscription, also in runes, on Bewcastle Waste not far away, which commemorates a forgotten victory? Perhaps the lines of verse, again in runes, on the Franks Casket? Or the Corpus and Épinal glosses? The point is that historical linguists have a good deal of information to work with, and, ever since Jakob Grimm, have been able to build up a cohesive chronology of linguistic change. This is, certainly, “only a theory”, as creationists always say about evolution. But both theories succeed in integrating enormous amounts of data, and have proved capable of continuous refinement.

As for the date of Beowulf, conviction sags as soon as one reads Watts’s translation of Humfrey Wanley’s words in 1705. Wanley wrote, “In hoc libro . . . descripta videntur bella quæ Beowulfus . . . gessit contra Sueciæ Regulos”, which Watts translates as, “In this book . . . can be seen fine descriptions in which Beowulf . . . performs against the princes of Sweden”. This does not make sense even in modern English. Performs what against the princes of Sweden? But in any case, readers of the TLS, remembering bellum gerere and bellum as the textbook neuter noun declension paradigm, will need no further gloss to see it is not Wanley here who is “grossly misleading”.

Meanwhile, and more significantly, there is powerful evidence for an earlier date of Beowulf, much of it brought together in the conference at Harvard University on the subject last September. But the evidence, much of it historical linguistics again, has been available for years. Watts gives space all but entirely to the theories of Kevin Kiernan. Professor Kiernan’s work on the manuscript of the poem, and the Thorkelin transcripts, has provoked much thought, and remains extremely valuable, but his reign-of-Knut dating has found few converts – except whoever it was who wrote the Wikipedia entry, and that is not compelling. Watts’s belief that if you think the poem older than the manuscript, you have been mesmerized by a myth of ancient-ness, is peremptorily dismissive; his “hunch” that we owe the poem to Scribe B is untenable. Modern editors and translators patch them over, but both Scribe A and Scribe B make too many mistakes, including inability to recognize the names of prominent characters, to be seen as authors or people close to the author.

Middle English is not sure ground, either. Once again, translation lets Watts down. In the Peterborough Chronicle, “Hæge sitteð þa aceres dæleth” does not mean “Hedges sit there that separate acres”. It is a proverb, found and contextualized elsewhere, which says “High he sits who deals out land”; and I think it means, if said with a shrug, “It’s all right for some”. Watts argues that the declining status of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle disproves the “myth of unbroken tradition”, and on a literary level, that’s true – but not on a linguistic level. In any case, the breach of literary tradition is self-evident. As for the modern “myth” of Middle English as a creole, space permits only the comment that if one uses evidence drawn from internet chat rooms (or from Wikipedia), one will indeed get some strange results. The whole “creole” discussion has proved a dead end. Going on to Watts’s rejection of “the Great Vowel Shift”, we can agree with Paul Johnston that the evidence indicates a number of vowel shifts, starting earlier than was thought. The “myth” of the GVS remains useful pedagogically, just because the changes it indicates look so consistent – and do a good deal to explain the unhappy state of English spelling.

Professor Watts comes into his own in the modern period, and here his argument is plain, if uncontroversial. He thinks that the “myth of polite language” mutated into the “myth of legitimate language” and is now a “myth of educated language”. He rejects such views as that “All nonstandard forms are corrupt” and that “Those who continue to speak nonstandard forms . . . are politically subversive”. But then, one has to say, so does everybody else. Ever since Grimm, historical linguists have slavered with delight over non-standard forms – some of the Grimms’ favourite fairy tales were in Plattdeutsch. English is also something of a European anomaly in that there has been no possibility of equating language with nation state ever since Yorktown, and Bannockburn before it. English standard English has long had independent competitors.

The real and serious issue must be the use of Standard English, and Standard American, to “strengthen social elitism and exclusion” in the present time, and here there are two views. To speak personally, I was once present at a lecture urging the use of “Ebonics” (African American Vernacular English) as a teaching medium in predominantly black American schools. At the end of the lecture an African American stood up and said, in Standard American, that he was a lawyer specializing in defending African Americans in the courts; and that if he did this in AAVE rather than Standard American, his acquittal rate would be much lower. So, stick to one’s principles, and see young men sent to jail? Lament the prejudice which creates such a situation, and do nothing? Or accept bidialectalism? It’s easy for linguists – writing, of course, in perfect Standard English, or else they wouldn’t get published – to take the high moral line.

One can then agree with Watts’s strictures over the Kingman Report, the Cox Report, the querelle over John Honey’s work in the 1980s and 90s, remarking only (as has been done several times in this journal) that much of the trouble came and comes from the fact that, by “grammar”, far too many educated English-speakers still mean a small set of trivial shibboleths. Watts goes on to challenge the “myth” of “English as a global language”, and here one feels like saying “well, it is and it isn’t”. Lots of people don’t speak English, but it is very widely used in science and in finance, and it is spread even more widely through films and pop music. One can concede that this is pure accident, a result of American power and influence, that it says nothing about the inner nature of the language, and that it is bound to be temporary.

Two final points of agreement may be these. Triumphalism is always ugly, and there is indeed a vein of it in too many histories of English. And the discussion of social issues to do with language has been regularly vitiated in Britain and America by an unusually low level of linguistic knowledge even among the most educated English-speakers. Watts’s attempted rewrite of premodern language history, however, is fatally skewed by the wish to make it fit a modern thesis. Things back then were more interesting and more diverse than he allows.

Tom Shippey’s most recent book is his collection of papers on Tolkien, Roots and Branches, 2007. He is the editor of The Shadow-walkers, which won the Mythopoeic Society’s award for scholarship in 2008.
Reply With Quote

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are On
Pingbacks are On
Refbacks are On

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
English Poetry DANISH_KHAN English Poetry 2 Sunday, October 13, 2019 02:26 PM
Please help me in my Research Project mubeen saeed Off Topic Lounge 11 Tuesday, October 25, 2011 01:01 AM
Global Warming - Fact or Fiction. Omer Essays 0 Wednesday, March 19, 2008 01:00 PM
Languages by Countries Snobbish General Knowledge, Quizzes, IQ Tests 0 Friday, June 15, 2007 11:27 AM

CSS Forum on Facebook Follow CSS Forum on Twitter

Disclaimer: All messages made available as part of this discussion group (including any bulletin boards and chat rooms) and any opinions, advice, statements or other information contained in any messages posted or transmitted by any third party are the responsibility of the author of that message and not of (unless is specifically identified as the author of the message). The fact that a particular message is posted on or transmitted using this web site does not mean that CSSForum has endorsed that message in any way or verified the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of any message. We encourage visitors to the forum to report any objectionable message in site feedback. This forum is not monitored 24/7.

Sponsors: ArgusVision   vBulletin, Copyright ©2000 - 2021, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.