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Review of Language myths and the history of English

posted January 14th, 2012

Language myths and the history of English. By Richard J. Watts. (Oxford studies in sociolinguistics.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. vii-338. ISBN 9780195327618. $29.95.

Reviewed by Josep Soler Carbonell, University of Oxford

This is a brilliant book in the field of historical sociolinguistics, a model that can be used as a reference for how to conduct research in this particular area. It contains twelve chapters and is clearly written, which makes it a useful source for pedagogical purposes as well.

The main theme of the book revolves around the concept of ‘myth’: how myths are formed by ‘conceptual metaphors’ and how they help to construct particular language ideologies. If these ideologies are powerful enough to become part of a dominant discourse, then a discourse archive, in a Foucauldian sense, is formed. The aim of the book is not to provide yet another history of the English language, as the author repeatedly states, but rather to deconstruct specific myths that, during the history of English, have formed the basis of a dominant discourse on what modern English is.

There is a series of myths that the author deals with in each chapter, quite independently from each other, but because they are interrelated to a certain extent (some more than others), they can be grouped into three main sets. First of all, there are myths that appeared in the latter half of the nineteenth century within the context of the establishment of the nation-state. Using the author’s own labels, these include the longevity of English myth, the ancient language myth, the unbroken tradition myth, the polite language myth, and the legitimate language myth. Another set of myths that has resonance in other languages throughout history, and thus appears to be universal, includes the pure language myth, the perfect language myth, the contamination through contact myth, the decay and death myth, the barbarians myth, the immutability myth, the good climate/soil myth, and the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth (the latter being specific only to England). Finally, the last set of myths derives from more modern times: the English as a creole myth and the English as a global language myth.

The beliefs driven by myths need to be taken into account carefully, in particular if they are to be part of hegemonic discourses about language. To prove that that is the case and that they may thus bring about important consequences to more practical and applied terrains, the author discusses in detail the question of English in Switzerland and the misguided language policies derived from a blind belief in English as the global language. As the author himself concludes, even if there will always be lay conceptualizations of language built on mythical beliefs, as there have always been, as sociolinguists, we need to know as much about the myths as possible. This volume provides a remarkable way to look at and analyze them.