Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Morlocks in Our Midst

Ironically, it never seems to occur to American Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (PSG) obsessives that the supposedly correct English they champion and defend is itself a debased, barbaric corruption of real Standard English.  Surely they know that their British counterparts have long been fussing about the malign influence of Americanisms on the real deal?  In his fascinating book Standard English and the Politics of Language (Illinois, 1989*) Tony Crowley, quotes one such, R. W. Chapman, who wrote in 1932:
Whether standard English will long be able to maintain its position and integrity seems open to doubt.  It is exposed, as we have seen, to dangers from within … As the speech of a very small minority of English speakers it is obviously exposed to gradual absorption by the surrounding mass, and perhaps also to deliberate attack.  It is well-known that English vocabulary and idiom are undergoing penetration from America and elsewhere … Even our grammar is threatened [quoted in Crowley, 195-6].
Crowley traces the history of the study of language mainly as it was done in England starting in the late 1700s, with a focus on the history of English.  His thesis is that these scholars, despite their scientific pretensions to impartiality, were strongly prescriptive, driven by their class and other political biases.  They were sure that their dialect of English was superior -- more elegant, more subtle, more sonorous, easier to understand, and the dialect that foreigners seeking to learn English preferred to acquire.  Among the more amusing aspects of the quest to define and exalt Received Standard English, or RSE, was the tendency to limit its speakers to smaller and smaller groups of the English population.  So, for example, the early twentieth-century linguist Henry Wyld defined RSE as the dialect spoken by men who had studied at English public schools, but later he narrowed it even further:
If I were asked among what class the ‘best’ English is most consistently heard at its best, I think, on the whole, I should say among officers of the British Regular Army.  The utterance of these men is at once clear-cut and precise, yet free from affectation; at once downright and manly, yet in the highest degree refined and urbane [quoted in Crowley, 204].
Yes, but which officers?  Lieutenants?  Colonels?  Generals?  Surely Wyld was not being precise enough here.

Another writer quoted by Crowley (246) declared:
If any one wants a definite example of standard English we can tell him that it is the kind of English spoken by a simple, unaffected young Englishman like the Prince of Wales.
Given the date (1925), I presume that the "simple, unaffected" prince this writer had in mind was the future Edward VIII, perhaps because of his willingness to serve in the military during the First World War.  But Edward was also a racist, though not unusually so for a person of his station in his day; and notorious for womanizing and reckless behavior, including affairs with married women.  Later he took up with a married American, and abdicated his throne upon her divorce so he could marry her.  Because of his Nazi sympathies, he was sent to the Bahamas as governor for the duration of World War II.  Ah yes, a simple, unaffected young Englishman ... but I digress.

What I found most interesting and useful in Crowley's book was his account of the ambivalence such writers felt about teaching Standard English to the lower orders.  On one hand, they believed that everybody should be taught Standard English so that all Britons would have a chance at social and economic success.  Social success was perhaps more important than mere economic success in their eyes:
Thus for Kington-Oliphant the self-made men of the mid-Victorian period (particularly the millocracy) were a major social and linguistic threat.  He argued therefore that ‘many a needy scholar might turn an honest penny by offering himself as an instructor of the vulgar rich in pronunciation of the fatal letter.  Our public schools are often railed against as teaching but little; still it is something that they enforce the right use of the h’.  ‘H’ then, the ‘fatal letter’, was a highly important social signifier and thus according to the same writer, ‘few things will the English youth find in after-life more profitable than the right use of the aforementioned letter’ [153f].**
In other words, you could be very successful in business but still be regarded as "vulgar" because of your accent.  As Henry Wyld wrote in 1909, "It is probably wise and useful to get rid of these Provincialisms since they attract attention, and often ridicule, in polite circles" (quoted by Crowley, 180).  So it’s polite to make fun of someone who speaks differently?  It seems very provincial to me, especially when the supposedly neutral standard is a dialect spoken by a regional minority.

On the other hand, the advocates of universal training in RSE were ambivalent: could it be done without diluting and debasing the purity of English?  Indeed, could these ignorant peasants and vulgar parvenus learn to speak 'properly' at all?  (Bernard Shaw played with this issue in his comedy Pygmalion, originally staged in 1912, in which an expert in phonology teaches a Cockney flower girl to speak like a lady.)  The project was blocked in any case for more than a century by the resistance of those who wanted the curriculum to stay based in the classical languages, Latin and Greek.

An analogous situation in the United States was the system of Indian schools, which took young children from their families, forced them to speak English and punished them for speaking their native languages, and trained them for domestic service.  As Tim Machan writes in What Is English? And Why Should We Care? (Oxford, 2013, p. 237),
Beyond the irony of English as an instrument to civilize Native Americans for menial jobs is the irony that in many cases even these jobs didn’t exist.  Girls trained as domestics could find little work if they returned to reservations with dirt-floor houses, where boys taught to be shoemakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths had little opportunity to exercise their craft.  Trained as a tinsmith at Carlisle and accustomed to send to his family the goods he produced, Standing Bear notes, “After I had left the school and returned home, this trade did not benefit me any, as the Indians had plenty of tinware that I had made at school.”  Equally telling of Anglophone Native American marginal status is the fact that in some areas the only speakers with whom students might use their new language were their teachers or other students.  Acquiring English invited them to join a group that didn’t exist.
Training non-standard speakers in Standard English often alienated them from the people they'd grown up with.  Crowley stresses that "discrimination was not a unidirectional practice and Sweet for one noted that ‘northern speakers often reproach Londoners with mincing affectation’" (155).
Furthermore, the argument that ‘sub-standard’ speakers reacted to the stigmatization of their usage by passively accepting it and thus ‘standardising’ or ‘correcting’ their speech is not supported by much evidence.  There is, on the contrary, evidence for a reverse process since those who did ‘correct’ or ‘standardise’ in any but the most necessary contexts were the recipients of the mockery and stigmatization of their peers.  Barnes, for example, noted that the dialect, ‘will not, however, be everywhere immediately given up as the language of the land-folk’s fire-side, though to outsiders they may speak pretty good English, since fine-talking (as it is called) on the lips of a home-born villager, is generally laughed at by his neighbors as a piece of affectation’ [161].
Most disturbing, I thought, was this passage by "the early sociologist C.F.G. Masterman" (208), published in 1901:
Our streets have become congested with a weird and uncanny people.  They have poured in as dense black masses from the eastern Railways; they have streamed cross the bridges from the marshes and desolate places beyond the river; they have been hurried up in incredible number through tubes sunk in the bowels of the earth, emerging like rats from a drain, blinking in the sunshine.  They have surged through our [!?] streets, turbulent cheerful indifference to our assumed proprietorship [quoted in Crowley, 209].
It's many years since I read H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), but when I read this I immediately thought of the Morlocks in that story, who "are described as 'ape-like, with little or no clothing, large eyes and grey fur covering their bodies. As a result of living underground they are albinos and thus have little or no melanin to protect their skin, which makes them extremely sensitive to light."  Masterman's description is similar to racist diatribes of today (or of his own day), but the notable thing is that he's not talking about immigrants from abroad, he's talking about his fellow Englishmen (who a century later are vilified as "chavs"), just as American PSG obsessives today rail most violently against the linguistic offenses of other Americans.

Since I figured this out, I've become increasingly aware of, and bemused by, the fury and hatred of other human beings expressed by many PSG obsessives, at home and abroad.  Crowley quotes quite a bit of material from linguistic puritans who worked themselves into a frenzy over the letter h, for example; Kington-Oliphant, quoted above, wasn't unique.  It's one thing to be bothered by other people's differences or even errors (however you define them) of pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, or grammar; it's quite another to justify it by declaring those Others to be stupid, low-class, inferior, subhuman.  I'm sure you've heard of Stanley Milgram's infamous obedience experiment, in which two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer strong electric shocks to a person who answered questions incorrectly?  These PSG obsessives would probably have been among the punitive two-thirds.

*The second edition, published in 2003, is available online as a PDF.
**In this and other quotations I've silently removed the references.