Standard English: The Widening Debate

By Tony Bex; Richard J. Watts | Go to book overview

2

THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF STANDARD ENGLISH: GRAMMAR WRITERS AS A ‘DISCOURSE COMMUNITY’

Richard J. Watts

1

Social constructivism and Standard English as the ‘legitimate language’

In tracing out the historical development of British Standard English (SE) there is general agreement about the central importance of the first sixty years of the eighteenth century in creating the conditions under which an ‘ideology of linguistic prescriptivism’ became the dominant conceptual framework for setting up the notion of a national standard language (cf. Smith 1984; Watts 1990, 1996; Mugglestone 1995; Leith 1997; Milroy and Milroy 1998). The eighteenth century was a period in which explicit connections were being made between mercantilism and imperialist ambitions, on the one hand, and the nation-state and a ‘national’ language, on the other (Hobsbawm 1990).

However, in the welter of books and pamphlets of different kinds that were published on the subject of language in the first half of the eighteenth century, we tend to lose sight of the significance of certain powerful social institutions through which dominant social values were not only constructed and diffused throughout society but were also built into and made part of the hegemonic practices of government and the ‘administration. The most influential of these social institutions was that of ‘public’ education in the form of schools and universities, and it is with that institution, and the grammars of English that were written specifically for it from the turn of the eighteenth century till 1762, that I shall be concerned in this chapter. 1

I shall argue that it is only by understanding how these social values came to be constructed and so successfully diffused that we will be able to understand the powerful lay conceptualisations of SE. These conceptualisations led to the recent fight over the National Curriculum for English language teaching

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