Download A Social History of English by D. Leith PDF

By D. Leith

ISBN-10: 0203992865

ISBN-13: 9780203992869

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Sample text

This problem is exacerbated by the habit of many influential commentators to talk about the ‘standard’ as an ideal of usage, restricted to the written medium and inseparably linked to the notion of literary greatness. This pulls the meaning away from any idea of a norm and invests the notion of the standard with the aura of transcendence, so that like the nation, the law and the market it supposedly operates at a level above the merely human. It would be a mistake to dismiss these meanings as ‘unscientific’, as many of them have been present ever since the term ‘standard’ was first applied to the discussion of language in the early eighteenth century.

By Shakespeare’s time this regional variation in the language of printed literature had all but disappeared, although there have been STANDARDISATION AND WRITING 35 isolated examples since and a reemergence in the industrial north of England in the nineteenth century. The establishment of a national literary norm had crucial repercussions for imaginative literature. In medieval England, there could be no sense of a norm for English usage, for reasons already explained above. Once a norm has been established, at least in the written language, it becomes possible to break it for stylistic purposes—in particular, for representing the speech of people from regions far away or belonging to social groups whose language is supposed to have certain clearly identifiable characteristics.

But there are immense problems involved in drawing a boundary between such a ‘standard’ and whatever is felt to be ‘not-standard’ usage. Applied too loosely, the ‘standard’ includes virtually the whole of English, with dialect, slang and perhaps jargon constituting only an exotic fringe. Applied too restrictively, the standard is associated with only a very limited range of supposedly correct forms. On this latter view, which is not the one adopted by sociolinguists, the standard is an ideal that has to be constantly fought for (despite the claim that it is simultaneously a ‘national’ norm).

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