Alternative Histories of English

By Richard Watts; Peter Trudgill | Go to book overview

8

From polite language toeducated language

The re-emergence of an ideology

Richard Watts

The obsession with politeness

Eighteenth century British society, or at least the middle and upper sections of it, was obsessed by the idea of politeness. There were references in countless publications to 'polite behaviour', 'polite language', 'polite education', 'polite literature', even to 'polite philosophy'. The historian Paul Langford, in a book with the intriguing title A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, says of politeness that it was in a sense 'a logical consequence of commerce' (Langford 1989:4). In theory, politeness was a question of morals, but this didn't always correspond to its practical significance in acquiring 'material acquisitions and urbane manners' (ibid.: 5). What it conveyed to those who were seeking to acquire it were the trappings of 'upper-class gentility, enlightenment, and sociability' (ibid.: 4). Contemporary commentators on eighteenth century society were 'as much intrigued by the impact of affluence on manners, as by its material consequences. In a word, they charted the progress of politeness' (ibid.: 71).

In this chapter I want to discuss the social, and ultimately political, implications of the ideology of politeness on the development of Standard English in the eighteenth century, and then to focus on a rather odd re-emergence of that ideology under the guise of the term 'education' in the writings of John Honey in the late 1980s and 1990s (Honey 1988, 1989, 1997). I shall argue that the acquisition and use of Standard English appeared to guarantee social climbers in the eighteenth century access to the world of politeness, the result being that 'polite language' came to mean 'standard language'. Today, however, the acquisition and use of Standard English English 1 is misused at least in certain powerful circles in Britain, as a guarantor of access to the world of education. In both cases, the world of politeness and the world of education are presumed to provide access to the corridors of political and cultural power, although this is rarely, if ever, stated explicitly.

What I want to offer, therefore, is the rough outline of a history of the link between Standard English and hegemonic social and political institutions. I shall argue that this link is still on today's political agenda in Britain even though, like a chameleon, it has changed colour in the meantime. I shall

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