In 1066 – as you’ll no doubt know – the Normans conquered England. Taking complete control, the invaders made Old French and Latin the land’s official languages. As a consequence the English language lost all status, was driven underground, and kept alive by the tongues of the lower-orders.
Three hundred years later English reclaimed the linguistic centre stage. It resurfaced as a vibrant, unstable, fragmented vernacular that had once again absorbed much of another language in order to articulate new ideas, concepts and experiences. Why did English make a comeback? Firstly, the Normans lost a war to the then much smaller kingdom of France and were cut off from their domain and culture on the continent. High-ranking males on these shores started taking English wives, who nurtured their multicultural offspring using the English language. Secondly, rats (allegedly) transported plague-carrying fleas up and down the country. The officials who had everyday contact with the people developed a tendency to die, quite horribly. When the plague retreated and society began to recover, new officials were needed. Surviving members of the English-speaking lower-orders suddenly discovered social mobility – too few speakers of Old French and Latin had escaped the pestilence.
A lost war, wives, rats and socially mobile, stinking serfs. Not an RP speaker or writer of Standard English to be heard or read when the English language really was in danger of dying out and in need of saviours.
Caxton introduced printing to these isles and selected, mostly for practical reasons, a regional dialect with which to standardise text. This dialect became known as Standard English. While Caxton was struggling to overcome the problem that a land of many dialects caused a pioneering printer (rather than privilege one variety of English over another), the wealthy, educated classes – who happened to use the dialect that Caxton selected – increasingly utilised their power to assert that language use was one of the variables that defined individual worth, social status and structure. One dialect and one accent were ‘correct’, and all the others were abominations of the fields and gutters. Despite some notable dissenters – such as William Wordsworth – language was exploited to promote the nefarious political idea of superior and inferior human beings. Language use became a bedrock of the class system.
Standard English isn’t inherently bad. It’s been a fantastic asset in the development of science, education and literature. It remains exceptionally important in these fields. Nevertheless the idea that a person’s qualities can be discerned through their use of standard or non-standard language has been dethroned. The inherent value hypothesis no longer rules… It was baloney, right? And that’s not all. Try to fix a language too much and it will die. People need a versatile tool to express all the facets of their identity, join or reject new social groups, take on board new ideas, address new cultures, movements, experiences, and so on. Standard English isn’t up to it all.
Do me a favour.
Shut the fuck up moaning about textspeak. Or non-standard spellings on Faecesbook or Twatter. You’re above nobody just because you write ‘I hate’ instead of ‘I 8’ on Pretentious Sophisticated B’stard’s daily post. Do you really want to turn into one of those dull old dragons who complain to the newspapers that bad grammar and Americanisms are devastating English civilisation? If only it was so easy, huh? A few choice glottal stops and a mantra of ‘racoon in a wigwam’…
Something is tearing up the social fabric, but it isn’t dialects or sociolects, uttered or banged out on a keyboard. You might like to glance over to the Eton reunion, where they all speak ‘proper’. That reminds me. The English language doesn’t exist solely to support our economy. Stop drivelling and snivelling on about our school-leavers’ punctuation. Just because you’ve seen a hastily typed message on a social network site doesn’t mean we’re all going to be bankrupted. The ‘educated’ users of Standard English in the banks and the City have already made a colossal mess for us on that score.
Victorian prescriptivism. Stuff it up Michael Gove’s arse.