December 16th, 2011


I can haz Engrish?

The history of English is one of low status dialects taking the place of high status dialects to become "standard English." If you were to ask in AD 750-800 who spoke and wrote the best English, hands down the center of scholarship would have been the Northumbria of Bede, Cædmon, and Alcuin. This is the English of the Lindesfarne Gospels and of Bede's Death-song.

After the Viking invasions and the settlement of the Danelaw, only the kingdom of Wessex in the south offered a center from which to publish things in Old English. Alfred the Great started the project of translating great works into the English of his day. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle got started. By the time of Edgar the Peaceable, England was united. Short legal documents, called writs, were being published by the government in English. Most of the OE documents we have are from this period and they are in the heavily-diphthongized West Saxon dialect. When we think of OE today, we think of WS Old English. It was the "proper" English of its day.

The Danish settlement had already begun to change the Anglian dialects of Old English, however, adding much new vocabulary and simplifying inflections. After the Norman Conquest, when nobody who was anybody spoke or wrote English for a couple hundred years, the WS dialect lost all status. When English arose again and began to publish, the new sound of English was the West Midlands dialect of Sir Gawain and Pearl. The Scots borders also contributed to this rising status of English.

But the future of Middle English wasn't in the West or the North. It was in London, where commercial power lay. And it was in the now English-speaking court, where Geoffrey Chaucer was writing. Chaucer uses the London dialect, heavily laced with the Frenchified vocabulary of the aristocracy. This is the basis of today's English.

Still, it wasn't the accent of London that won out in the end. It was the language of the universities that became what we call today "Received Standard" or "the Queen's English." Birth and achievement made men rise to prominence in the England of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The idea that a university education was essential as a mark of breeding for the aristocracy and doubly essential as a mark of fitness for responsibility for the lower gentry and middle classes took a long while to catch hold. But catch hold it finally did, so much that grocer's daughters like Margaret Thatcher and representatives of the working classes like Tony Blair were sent to school to learn the accent that makes them acceptable as leaders of government and society.

The most recent chapter in this story of low status dialects replacing high status dialects is the rise of American English. Despised in colonial and early federal times by visiting Brits, mocked by those aspiring to the upper crust within living memory, American English has replaced British English as the standard of English around the world. All over the world, even in former British colonies, people want to learn English to brighten their prospects, and the English they want to learn is American English.

There is no guarantee that this will be the last chapter in the story. Someday, it will be someone else's English that defines what is "proper usage." In the meantime, let's be clear what "proper usage" is. When we lived in a poor neighborhood of Terre Haute years ago, I used to correct my daughter when she spoke as her playmates did. When she protested, I told her that I didn't care how she spoke when she was out playing, but she had to remember that we were only temporary residents of that place. She was going to live among other people who spoke in other ways. If she wanted to be given full credit for her ideas, make friends wherever she went, etc., then she needed to be in command of a more respectable kind of language. Her little friends, I was sad to say, would find some day that certain opportunities would be closed off to them because they didn't present themselves by how they spoke and wrote as well as they might want to. In effect, Anna had to learn to be multi-dialectal.

Northumbrian > West Saxon > West Midlands > Chaucerian > Oxonian > American. I don't look down on non-standard dialects. The story of English is the story of non-standard dialects replacing what everyone thought would define "proper English" for ever. But whatever is currently the standard makes it possible for everyone, all over the world, to communicate in English at their best. Those who speak and write in that standard dialect have more opportunities, are given greater credit for their ideas. This is why we teach it in school. On the playground or the internet, you can use pure LOLspeak.

rough draft of an introduction to my English course

This course is not a survey of English literature from its beginnings. Nor is it a rationally laid-out overview of English grammar, or syntax, or vocabulary. It is mostly a course in Rhetoric, and each section includes assignments for preparation and presentation in written and oral form; that said, it is not your usual course in Rhetoric, whether considered as Speech or as Composition.

It is an attempt to show you what English is through how it has developed over the centuries. Once you know how English operates, you will be able to take advantage of both the mechanics and the aesthetics of the English language to speak and write more effectively. The texts provided are intended to be read as examples, not as "greats." The outline and bibliography that accompany the course will give you a list of works that a well-read student of English should have read. You may consider this a lifetime list, to be worked at as long as the joy of reading remains with you.

Is is the premise of this course that English must be understood as a Germanic language. It has become almost a universal language, and its changes over the centuries have rendered it in many ways sui generis; nevertheless, in its basic grammar and vocabulary, it is as much a product of the Germanic world of late antiquity as modern German, or Dutch, or Danish. C.S. Lewis even argued* that the kinds of stories and poems that appealed to ancient English people, including especially their unique outlook on life and their literary taste, are still characteristic of modern English-speaking people. The ever-widening encounters of English with other languages and literary forms has given English writers much more to write about, but in the end what they write best is written in a way that conforms to the patterns of the English language and the viewpoint of the English-speaking peoples.

With such an approach, it is to be expected that charges of antiquarianism will be raised in some quarters. Nay, it is certain that in these early years of the Twenty-first Century, charges of racism and sexism (and who-knows-what-ism) will be leveled against this course. Proto-Indo-European, Germanic, Old English, Middle English, early Modern English -- to speak of these things is to many scholars and ideologues to conjure up the deadest, whitest, most patriarchal, most Euro-centric of all dead, white, male Europeans. But to pretend that English has somehow escaped its origins and can be freed from its fetters to become the sanitized, non-oppressive, liberating channel of communication desired by the devotees of diversity is to ask for what has never existed, and never will. Even the politically correct agitators' arguments are best expressed when they ignore their ideology and use their language in conformity to their language's own nature. Which is simply to say, that the rules of Rhetoric are not devised, but discovered.

English is a natural, organic thing, which grows and develops according to its own nature. No one knows why the Great Vowel Shift happened. No one planned it. No one guided it. Every parent understood one's child, and every child one's parents, yet within an astonishingly short time around AD 1400, the inhabitants of thousands of places all pronounced their vowels differently from the way their grandparents did. No matter what argument one had to make, the argument was now made with vowels that sounded this way, not the way they used to sound. An ideologue who came along and insisted that vowels should be pronounced yet some other way, in the name of some vision of justice that he was possessed of, would produce only ineffective gibberish, unless he used the vowels that everyone else used. His argument that we changed before, so we could change again, would be laughable, except for the real harm done by scores of reformers who have asked the ridiculous or the impossible of their followers and used the police power of the State (or Church, or School) to punish those who could not wrap their tongues around the new shibboleths imposed in the name of his god.

*[insert citation]