Standard English - the Beginning of Criticism

"All change is of itself evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage; and as inconstancy is in every case a mark of weakness, it will add nothing to the reputation of our tongue." Samuel Johnson, The Plan of A Dictionary of the English Language.

Standard English, which we will here take to refer to the written rather than the spoken language (although the two necessarily overlap and intertwine), represents a particular form of English linguistic usage which is constructed and endorsed as "correct", standard and central. Standard English has long been used as a tool of authoritarian control and a focus for the linguistic theory of conservative critics. In Tony Crowley's Proper English, an anthology of writings on Standard English, all of the writers are resolutely reactionary: from Swift, through Johnson, to John Marenbon, whose pamphlet English Our English was published by the Tory think-tank the "Centre for Policy Studies". The most renowned and convincing argument against these conservative arguments for establishing a standard form of the language, Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is notable by its absence. As a general rule, the conservative writers argue that change is always negative, and that the language must be preserved in order not to render contemporary works unreadable to future generations. This theory is often illustrated by reference to the great works of the Anglo-Saxon period - Beowulf, The Wanderer and the like. It was argued, most vociferously by Swift, that there was a danger of the language changing to such an extent that the works of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and (by implication) Swift himself taking on the status of Beowulf - understood only by a small group of scholars: "How shall any Man, who hath a Genius for History, equal to the best of the Antients, be able to undertake such a Work with Spirit and Chearfulness, when he considers, that he will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall be hardly understood without an interpreter?"

The conservative critics consistently seem to be arguing for the preservation of a form of language which has already become outdated. From Swift and Johnson to Watts and Marenbon, all of these reactionary critics are arguing not for the preservation of language in its present form, but rather a return to a 'golden age' of language (and political stability) which has already passed - or more often than not did not exist in the first place. Swift and Johnson look back to the period between the reign of Elizabeth and the Revolution of 1642: both were against the Revolution and the subsequent Restoration, and look back to a period of less social mobility. Both assert that the 'rising up' of the masses and subjugation of authority symbolized by the Revolution were accompanied by a corresponding corruption of the language. There is, however, even progression from Swift to Johnson, conservative and enamoured of the status quo as the latter critic is. Swift complains of the use of words which are "curtailed and varied from their original Spelling". Just thirty years later, whilst continuing to insist that "all change is... evil", Johnson admits that "gen'rous" and "rev'rend" are admissible spellings. Consistency to one's own cause is obviously hardest when trying to fight for the intangible such as the preservation of the English tongue.

Watts, one of the earliest contributors to the new discipline of the History of the Language, looks back to a time of Pre-Imperial Britain before (so he claims) the language was polluted by the importation of colonial words. Marenbon's argument is more complex. Being a staunch Conservative, he had the figure of Margaret Thatcher hanging over his work. Thatcher conformed resolutely to traditional power structures (despite, or perhaps because of, being a woman) through her insistence upon 'proper' English. As the daughter of a London greengrocer she attended elocution lessons so that she would be able to mix in the still establishment-dominated world of politics. Whilst this of course relates more to spoken than written English, and to accent as much as words, it implies a reactionary theory of language as a whole which can be found in Marenbon's pamphlet. English Our English demonstrates very clearly both Swift's statement that "the reform of language is as important historically as a number of other pressing political questions" and Crowley's assertion that "linguistic history... [is] a varying, conflictual and power-laden set of relations... in its broadest scope it can be taken as the history of the role of language in the construction of forms of cultural identity". If we thus view language as a political tool, then Marenbon's attack on new orthodoxy can be seen as an attack on liberalism generally and the progressive Labour party specifically. As Crowley states, the text "uses language as a site upon which political contestation can take place."

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