Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry

Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry

Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry

Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry

Excerpt

Dropping the h-sound in 'have' is a sign of low prestige, dropping the glottal stop in 'what' (to replace it with a historic t) is a sign of high prestige –although these sounds are more closely related to each other than to any others. Both are laryngeals: h is the ghost sister of?. They are degree zero phonemes, set outside the structure of oppositions that generates the other phonemes in the English kit, and since they are not clusters of distinctive features, and cannot be decomposed, it is not surprising that for many speakers neither is a phoneme. Few speakers are missing both of them. The Indo-European laryngeals are phantoms, conjured up by Kurylowicz to explain, as the trace of a sound which vanished around 3000 BC, the resemblance between Greek osteon, 'bone', and Russian kost', 'bone'. For some systematists, they might be described as two realisations of the same archiphoneme, because they cannot stand in lexical opposition to each other: h occurs only as a syllable starter, the glottal stop only as a syllable terminal. Each bears a resemblance to a non-linguistic, merely muscular, act, that of breathing out or of closing the windpipe to end the sounding of a consonant at the end of a speech group. Everyone south of York can be socially placed rather accurately on the basis of a plot of the distribution of the laryngeals in their speech. We could posit a law of complementary distribution stating that 'where speaker X possesses the initial h-sound they do not possess the syllable-final glottal stop'—which in fact is untrue. The disposition of sounds illustrates a number of rules: the conservatism of school grammar, the conceptual innovation of the 'substandard', the failure of recording systems to catch something outside their code (and the consequent 'lack of history' of the popular), the excessive status/prestige reading-coding of accidental distinctions, the more consistent pursuit by colonial populations of trends 'governed' within the parent territory– familiar to students of British society. The glottal stop is the summa of the inarticulate–quite literally, since it has no articulatory features.

The hope of poets of speaking with degree zero of class background, of becoming accessible to all parts of social knowledge by losing social attitudes, of reaching the whole market by transcending the oppositions on which it is structured, places them in a position analogous to laryngeals, vulnerable and outside the carefully ordered central space. In this outside, the transcendent and the meaningless are adjacent, and interchange: as Roy Fisher and W. S. Graham were generally seen as meaningless in the 1960s, and are now accepted as transcendent, the work of J. H. Prynne is today regarded by some as meaningless, by others as sublime.

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