Monday, July 30, 2007

The English Language: from Codification to Standardisation

In last month's article I drew your attention to how, in the course of the 16th and 17 the centuries, the English language became subject to serious academic and scholarly attention. This, I tried to argue, was notably due to Latin’s fall into virtual disuse, which was finished off by (a) Henry 8th’s emasculation of the Catholic church and their hold on education, and (b) the need for a unified and codified language to serve the emerging nation-state of England.

Another reason was that practical interest in the mechanics of the language was generally appearing widespread, due to it being formally taught in the country’s schools. There was also the 'Rise of Science' to consider as well, which, in accordance with its spirit of independent scientific discovery, served to promote rational analysis of the language. Anyway, enough of the technical stuff: this time I’d like to show how the first efforts to codify our language inevitable led a process of standardisation, a standardisation that is still disputed even today.

One of the first grammar books to appear in English was William Lily’s 'A Shorte Introduction of Grammar', which was published in 1523. In fact, Lily limited himself to describing Latin grammar, which was of limited use to scholars of English! It does, however, explain why English grammar is full of obscure terms that were originally written for another language entirely, as the scrutinisers of our tongue adopted Lily’s terms almost wholesale. Take just ‘participle’, ‘decline’, ‘parse’ and ‘substantive’ as examples, words which today give little idea of their true meaning or function.

Our first true grammar of English came later, in 1586, in the shape of Bullokar’s 'Bref Grammar for English'. This book was, in fact, quite unique, in that it not only attempted to describe how English worked, but also tried to rationalise the spelling system and the language’s structures. It therefore intended to indicate how English should be, rather than merely how it was, and the rest of us have suffered ever since from teachers and pedants telling us how we really ought to speak and write. But, as I like to argue with my Arabic teacher, which is better; to talk like a book, or a real person?

By the late 16th century, the writing of grammar books such as Bullokar’s had become a political expedient. Every European state worth its independent Crown needed to be able to provide its own grammar of the national tongue. This so-called ‘spirit of linguistic patriotism’ typically involved attempts by vernacular grammarians and lexicographers to reject regional dialects and linguistic inconsistencies in an effort to somehow fix the language, to impose a linguistic conformity that never really existed.

In the case of English, this process of trying to establish one single variant of the English language was rather like nailing jelly to the wall. There were so many variants of the English language in existence at that time, as indeed there still are at present. In the late 16th century it was believed that the language spoken either in the provinces or by the lower orders was not fine enough to promote as a standard. George Puttenham, in his 'The Arte of English Poesie' wrote that the accepted language should be the following:

“...naturall, pure, and the most usuall of all his country’” and not that found “in any uplandish village or corner of the Realme, where is no resort but of poor rusticall or uncivill people”.

Neither, he advised “shall he follow the speach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, for such persons doe abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill-shaped sounds. But he shall follow the better brought up sort, men civill and graciously behavioured and bred.” So, the working classes were criticised for their diabolical pronunciation and their lack of overall culture!

Northerners also came in for a verbal bashing: “neither shall he take the terms of Northern-men, such as they use in dayly talke - not in effect any speach used beyond the river of Trent. Ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London and of the shires lying about London within 60 miles.” So the message was that there was a standard, albeit an artificial one, created by ridiculing and deriding the everyday speech of the greatest part of the country. Fixing the ‘best’ English thus involved a high degree of social and regional exclusiveness.

In short, Puttenham’s hierarchical view of English came to be the accepted one, and any later notion of ‘Standard English’ involved a high degree of social and literary correctness. This idea was picked up in the early 18th century by writers such as Jonathan Swift and Dr Johnson, and, unfortunately, here is where we have to pause to take a breather as I’ve run out of space. So, next month, don’t miss the next thrilling instalment of “How your Language got put into a Straight Jacket”.


LCC said...

I too am an English teacher, in a high school in Arizona, and I too have written about the development of English, in a brief textbook used by students at my school. I'm just writing to let you know how much I enjoy not only the information in your accounts but also your lifely and informal style. Describing the pseudo-scientific, language standardization movement as like "nailing jelly to the wall" is my favorite this month.

Keep up the good work.

EnglishTeacher365 said...

Thanks very much for your comments, LAnce - they are well appreciated!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article! Very much enjoyed it - I am studying Linguistics and the History of English and the moment, and found this an informative but light hearted read. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

i dint understand how did english codify in dictionaries and grammer books