[lg policy] book review: Language Myths and the History of English
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Sat Apr 7 13:35:25 UTC 2012
Language Myths and the History of English
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
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 metaphors.
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 mythologization.
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
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 an
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 Watt 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
One could quibble with Watt's extensive use of the word "myth." While it is
true that myth is "notoriously difficult to define" (Gentile 2011:85), for
"myth" 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
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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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