Words that Matter: Linguistic Perception in Renaissance English.
Heidegger remarked in section 34 of Being and Time that "the Greeks had no word for language." After all, a word for language is redundant for a culture that thinks that whatever is not Greek is not a language (that is, not real speech). But it is also true that, as Plato complained, the Greeks resisted conceptual thinking. Like our post-structuralists, they were nominalists who believed that "there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized langages" (Deleuze and Guattari). It's not even clear that the Greeks thought of their speech as being made of words - the Sophist Proclus was perhaps among the first to think of language as consisting of such things, and people thought him a bit of a ninny because of it. There is no ontological category for words to fill. Plato thought of them as elements in a mnemonic medium capable of swallowing whatever feeds into it. So in the Seventh Letter he warned that only a fool puts what matters to him into spoken, much less written, form.
Here are two invaluable books that investigate the emergence of these issues in Renaissance England, where vernacular speech undergoes a change that we still do not understand but which might be thought of as a kind of cultural objectification. Thus Judith Anderson takes up the question of what Renaissance writers were imagining, and what forms this imagining took, when they thought or spoke about their speech. No one seemed yet in the grip of the idea that language is a system for framing representations, or that it is composed of signs, or that it is meant to hook us onto the world. Before it could be conceptualized as a logical system it had to be materialized as something graspable as such. The composition of vernacular rhetorics, grammars, etymologies, and dictionaries help to fulfill this task, but in particular the printing press gives the words of English a visibility and, one might say, a material distribution that speech never had before. The interest of Anderson's research is her argument that this materialization took place (literally) word-by-word, that is, not at the level of holistic structures but at the level of random particles - isolate words, proverbs and sayings, quotations, epitaphs - quite as if English were not yet thought of as a superordinate language but as something to be engaged intimately as so many singular and detachable ingredients. One reason for this might be that Renaissance writers thought of language mnemonically, that is, in terms of how it resides in the memory rather than as we do when we imagine systems of rules and categories deep-structured in a grammatical unconscious.
Paula Blank shows that the main concern in sixteenth-century England was not to champion the cause of the vernacular against Latin but to construct a one, true English in place of the myriad dialects spoken across the island. Her book is a richly detailed study of this construction. The logophilia that we associate with English literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conceals a widespread effort to bring an anarchic language under cultural control by eliminating competing forms of the vernacular in favor of an authoritative but still undetermined "King's English." This required in the first place a mapping of the various "Englishes," many of which were social rather than regional in character - the most colorful example being the "cant" spoken by thieves, whores, gypsies, and other lowlifes and misfits in the London underworld. This meant specifically the construction of lexicons to keep track of new or unheard- of words that, especially during the later sixteenth century, were being introduced in great numbers across a wide range of social and cultural contexts, including that of poetry. "The first lexicographers," Blank writes, "do not much concern themselves with the nature and the forms of a common language, but with the mysterious, recondite languages that most people could not understand" (23).
Blank emphasizes that these early vernacular lexicographers, orthographers, and linguistic reformers were in competition with one another to see whose own way of speaking would get counted as the one, true English. "In an era in which the meaning of 'English' was still in flux, there was a widespread, intoxicating sense that the vernacular was up for grabs, its forms plastic enough to respond to the dictates and whims of individual proponents for change. . . . Like the gypsies of the Renaissance underworld, the first English language reformers practiced a kind of sleight of hand: Although they claimed to be the bearers of the royal seal, they were determined to put their private stamp on a still impressionable language" (29). This was certainly true of poets as well - "thieves of language," Blank calls them, whose philosophy of composition entailed ransacking vast inventories of foreign languages, social and regional dialects, idiolects, not to mention "English" texts from remote times and places. Blank borrows Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the linguistic marketplace to describe the wild, intense traffic in words that constitutes Elizabethan usage. To capture the state of affairs at ground level we must imagine something like a marketplace with no fixed coin of the realm and only the most questionable or unstable criteria for distinguishing between genuine and contraband material. Blank provides a nice reading of Love's Labor's Lost to give us a sense of the frantic nature of this cultural whirl, and also to locate Shakespeare's place in it as a (not surprisingly) conservative voice, but much more wonderful is her account of the "rogue literature" of the Renaissance underworld, with its cony-catching pamphlets and urban drama (my favorite being Middleton's The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse ). What is interesting about this material is that it shows how representation functions as a means of social integration and control by marking differences, setting boundaries, showing who's in, who's out, or (more significantly, perhaps) who's where. The literary use of regional dialects is important in this regard, and doubly so for the way it serves - in Spenser's famous case, for example - to establish an outside against an inside in order to assert a distinctive poetic identity.
The construction of English as a unitary language became a condition for the sovereignty of a "British" nation that comes to include Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The case of the Anglo-Irish is especially interesting. "Many Renaissance English writers," Blank says, "were preoccupied not so much with the language of the 'wild Irish,' but with the English of those countrymen who lived alongside a people considered barbaric. For these writers, the 'broken English' of the Anglo-Irish demonstrated the threat of cultural and racial disintegration, the possibility that not only English customs and forms, but Englishmen themselves, might 'become' Irish. Their preoccupation, in other words, was not so much with the 'Anglicization' of the Irish as with the 'Gaelicization' of the English" (145). The idea is to repress native tongues in order to keep the more outlandish Englanders from speaking them.
Both Words that Matter and Broken English are superbly researched and clearly and forcefully written, and they engage their subjects at conceptual levels that extend the importance of their research beyond the bounds of Renaissance studies. Anyone interested in the subject of language from the standpoint of social history, poetics, the pragmatics of language, and the construction of modern subjectivity will find these books immensely rich and valuable. In any case both are delightful to read.
GERALD BRUNS University of Notre Dame
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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