Language, Self, and Society: A Social History of Language.
The collection is divided into three sections, each focusing upon a particular function of language and social relationships: its contribution and responsiveness to the ever-changing community, namely in the areas of culture, politics, and the self. The first section, entitled "Authoritative Tongues," deals with languages which stress or exploit the all-encompassing power and authority of the words: ancient and religious tongues. Peter Burke argues that contrary to popular belief, Latin was very much a living language in the post-medieval world, relying not upon its historical authority, but its breadth and frequency of use. Burke shows that Latin was still the language of the European "academic tour", diplomacy, trade, and travel, maintained by the Protestant churches and elite culture well into the eighteenth century. In "The Uses of Hebrew in the English Revolution", Smith argues that the fusion of Puritan religious beliefs and their political agenda during the 1640s and 1650s made the incorporation of Hebrew into speech and writing or "Hebraicized English" a political issue--a competition between Fifth Monarchists and the Protectorate government for the interpretation of prophecies and divine truth through ancient religious words. The creation rather than the interpretation of language made the Quakers a distinctive social as well as religious force according to Hugh Ormsby-Lennon. Friends, he argues, created a "plain" language for two reasons. It made their religious order readily identifiable as its dogm was hardly formalized and its focus remained on the personal rather than the public aspects of redemption. It also linked the Quakers, "sociolinguistically no less than semantically" with other seventeenth-century revolutionary forces--in literature, philosophy, law, science, and medicine. Language, in thi case, helped to create the power of the organization. In all three essays, the power of language through credibility, religious or ancient in origin, shaped the development of early modern society.
The second part, "Language and Social Authority," examines the language of powe and exclusion within communities and social systems. The essays range from the most obvious forms of linguistic domination by a foreign-speaking power, to the more subtle demonstrations of control and isolation through same-language dialects. In "Languages and Conquerors", Victor Kiernan demonstrates how consistently throughout history (using examples from the Hittites to contemporary Paraguay) physical conquest and the occupation result in the force adoption of the language of the victor and the alienation of the conquered's ow sense of identity. Jo Gladstone's work on seventeenth-century English botanist John Ray, reflects both the scientist's concern for accuracy and the extent of social alienation during the Commonwealth. In her study of Ray's recording and categoring country dialects, Gladstone demonstrates the parallel importance of independent thought and speech during a time of intellectual, academic, religious, and linguistic control. Less overt assertions of independence throug language are detailed by Patrick Joyce and his analysis of dialects throughout working-class regions of nineteenth-century England. He convincingly shows that while the nineteenth-century society and its dialects (both spoken and in regional writing and popular literature) were thought to reflect "class" distinctions, "the peculiar mix of work, region, history, and community rendere through a prism of language gave rise to valuations of the social order that might best be termed 'popular' ... ". It was this 'people's English' which asserted a distinction between the lower and higher classes in Victorian societ and asserted the integrity of an independent language and culture of the masses
The final section of the book, "Meaning and the Self," examines historical significance in the naming and speaking about things. The creation of vocabular within a certain place and period of time helps us understand how individuals contributed to societal limitations through the use of words. G. S. Rousseau examines nerves and how a rudimentary understanding of the biology and history of "nervousness" provided an anatomical model of life that the eighteenth-century aristocracy, middle classes and philosophers alike, claimed as the explanation for social control, social change, and justification for whatever rendered more sympathetic for each group's needs. The language of Smollet to Wollstonecraft, Dr. Johnson to the "nerve doctors," reflects the use and misuse of the word "nerve." Roy Porter also addresses the connection betwee medical science and language. His essay demonstrates how the social and commercial pressures in eighteenth century society controlled the medical profession in all ways from what was understood to be an "acceptable" diagnosis to treatment. It was, he points out, the forerunner of today's "stigma illness" Finally, Daniel Rosenberg examines the importance of language and its social background through one individual's work, English radical and etymologist John Horne Tooke. Horne Tooke argued, according to Rosenberg, that language, as a means of communicating, was, when combined in particular ways, all of discourse and thought. The motives for the argument of this radical reformer were clear: words have power to change. There can be no ideas too complex for the average person to understand if the language is there. Enpowerment rather than etymolog was, according to Rosenberg, Horne Tooke's concern.
This collection of essays is diverse topically, and some are more grounded in traditional social historical method than others, but it is consistent in its use of examining language development in the context of its time, place, and social conventions. The volume clearly demonstrates that there is no easy way t understand the development of language or, for that matter, the general conditions from which it emerges and transforms itself. It is scholarly, readable, and most importantly, an eye-opener to the untrained reader concernin the relationship between language, the world it seeks to describe, and those seeking to use words to describe their world. It reminds us of the obvious: tha peoples and all facets of life, regardless of the distribution of power, economic and social position, or historical context, create language and the myths and ideologies associated with it.
Nancy LoPatin University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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