Posted by: lcm | August 30, 2011

Getting meta all the time

It’s getting meta all the time:

The history of the English language
and the linguist in the English department

I am getting ready to teach English 3720: Development of Modern English this fall, a course in the history of the English language, for what will be the 12th or 13th time, and I am thinking about the first course I ever took in linguistics as an undergraduate English major. It was a course a lot like the one I’ll be starting again next week, only it had a different number and a different name: LIN 4100: History of the English Language. The course was taught by Dr. Marie Nelson, one of only two female professors I had as an undergraduate, which will give you some idea of how long ago this was but probably the wrong idea, because it wasn’t long enough ago to make sense of the appalling lack of female faculty members at my otherwise much-loved alma mater.

Like many English majors, I majored in English because I liked books, reading them and writing about them and talking about them. Also like many English majors, I discovered early on that having to read Othello, Last of the Mohicans, and Vanity Fair in the same week and write papers on two of them could kind of take the fun out of pretty much everything I thought I’d like about majoring in English. So after a few semesters of frantically reading everything as fast as I could in time to write the papers and get on to the next ones, I noticed in the course offerings for the coming semester this thing called History of the English Language and thought, well, that sounds interesting and also like there won’t be a 400-page book to read for it every week. I signed up, and it turned out I was right on both counts.

Of course, it also turned out that this was the hardest English class I had taken to date, and it was to retain that crown through the rest of my undergraduate career. It was also the gateway drug that led me to linguistics.

A few years ago, I got to wondering about how the history of the language came to its place in the curricula of undergraduate English programs, which is to say it is often the only linguistics course offered to English majors, if there is even one offered at all. What lucky accidents of history had there been that led to the lucky accident of my happening upon and signing up for LIN 4100? Had I not taken that single course 25 years ago, I don’t know what direction my life might have taken. Had I not received credit toward my major, I probably would not have taken the class. Today I am doing the only thing I have ever really wanted to do, which is teaching and doing research in linguistics. It’s because of that class that I am doing it. Language is on my mind all the time, every day. I started writing down interesting things I noticed about the way people talk when I was seven. I didn’t know that was linguistics. I didn’t know there was such a thing.

So much in life depends on the ways that we categorize and classify things, how we name them and organize them and attach value to them. I work at a university, so the accidents of curricula and boundaries of academic discipline are categories of particular interest to me.

About five years ago, I started collecting books on the history of the English language. Today I have about 40 in hard copy and another 15 or so in electronic format. Some of these are completely awesome, although not all for the same reasons. It turns out that the genre is a fairly recent development, at least when you consider it in relation to how long the English language has been around. The first books to resemble in content and structure the ones I use in my courses today appeared in the mid-19th century. I take this to mean that the establishment of the history of the English language as an object of academic inquiry dates to the mid-19th century as well.

Some of the first people who held the kind of job that I have now, the job of professor of English, once that became a thing that people could be, thought it was important for their students to learn something about the history of the language, as an end in itself or for the purposes of literary studies, i.e. so that they could read literary texts written in Old or Middle English. This belief seems to have followed from the European scholarly tradition of philology, which encompassed the study of literature and comparative linguistics (the historical study of languages to determine ancestry and relatedness). English departments today are direct descendants of the philological tradition that evolved into “English” as an academic discipline, and the respective statuses of literature and linguistics were actively negotiated from the earliest establishment of the new discipline. Over time, literature assumed primacy in most departments.

But the centralization of literature was not a natural evolution. When I started looking into this topic, I noticed a tendency in the historiography of English studies to focus primarily if not exclusively on the origins of the literary strand, which the authors and editors of these volumes apparently consider to comprise the actual discipline. For example, D. J. Palmer’s The Rise of English Studies: An Account of the Study of English Language and Literature from Its Origins to the Making of the Oxford English School (1965), is largely a discourse on the development of English literature as an academic subject, the “language” in the title notwithstanding. Similarly, prominent disciplinary histories such as Richard Ohmann’s English in America (1976), Jo McMurtry’s English Language, English Literature (1985), Alan Bacon’s The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies (1998), and Robert Scholes’s The Rise and Fall of English (1998) appear to be histories of English studies in general but they are mostly about literature too. The titles of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature (1987) and Franklin E. Court’s Institutionalizing English Literature (1992) are rather more transparent about it. (All of these are still in copyright, so there is nothing substantial to link to here, but full citations are included below.)

Taking another perspective, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (1990), Allen Frantzen’s analysis of the history of Anglo-Saxon studies, challenges the marginalization of Anglo-Saxon studies in the twentieth century and its subordination to the kind of literary study that does not require dealing with any difficult old languages. And it turns out that Frantzen beat me to the punch by about 20 years with his observation in this 1990 book that most of the major works on the history of English studies — he cites Ohlmann, Graff, and Scholes and also Eagleton’s Literary Theory (1983) — are actually histories of English literary studies. “None of these works analyzes the place of English linguistic history,” Frantzen observes. “Apart from a few pages in Graff’s Professing Literature, the topic is untouched” (7). So it’s not just me.

The growing primacy of literature as the focus of English studies programs seems to have had the effect of recasting philology as something primarily associated with linguistics and as something other than (and subordinate to) literary study, although prior to the establishment of English literature as a legitimate academic pursuit, when it was still considered insufficiently rigorous (Graff 1987, 28), there already was a literary component for many philologists. This literary orientation is encoded in some of the definitions that are out there for philology, historical as well as more recent definitions, although in trying to figure out exactly WTF philology was and is, I have not exactly found consensus. This has led me to believe that either (a.) there is no agreement among scholars on what philology actually is, (b.) the definition has changed over time, or (c.) nobody else really knows WTF it is either. Does philology mean comparative linguistics, or did it mean that at some time in the past? Is it the same thing as historical linguistics? Is it linguistics in the service of literature?

In the introduction to Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (2007), Seth Lerer offers a linguistic definition: “Philology means ‘love of language,’ but for scholars it connotes the discipline of historical linguistic study” (2). The Oxford English Dictionary makes room for literary study: “Love of learning and literature; the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretive, and critical aspects of literature; literary or classical scholarship.” But the OED also offers a sense that is specifically linguistic: “The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages or language families; the historical study of the phonology and morphology of languages; historical linguistics.” The former is labeled obsolete; a note on the latter observes its increasing rarity: “Linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language and . . . has generally replaced philology” (italics in original).

So, an etymological argument about philology could be made by those who want to claim for the history of the English language — and for English linguistics more generally — a supporting role in the study of literature. If you’re a linguist in an English department (or in any department named for a language or family of languages), certainly this is better than no role. But as Frantzen argues (rightly, in my view), this perspective can be cause for concern: “Professionals in the academy are not today necessarily less conscious of language than they were in previous eras. But they have, by and large, stopped valuing linguistic history. . . . [and] what the many do not value, their students will not learn about” (Frantzen 1990, 2-3).

By the late 19th century and into the 20th, the challenge was coming from those whom Graff (1987) describes as “the generalists” (81-97), literature-oriented scholars who charged philology, with its emphasis on linguistics, with being too difficult, uninteresting, and as having “no end but itself,” as one late nineteenth century literary scholar put it (qtd. in Frantzen 1990, 76). Attention to language for its own sake risked the consequence of “divert[ing] attention from thought,” according to one influential professor of political science at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson (qtd. in Frantzen, 76).

The trend toward literary study as the central focus of departments of English in the United States continued through the first quarter of the twentieth century and beyond, bolstered in the 1930s by the rise of the New Criticism, which emphasized study of the literary text apart from any external context. And later in the twentieth century, the rise of literary theory, which Robert Scholes (1998) argues in The Rise and Fall of English ought to “[constitute] the disciplinary core” of English studies today (147), continued the trend of treating literary pursuits as central to English studies. In his proposal to reconstruct English studies “as a discipline of textuality” (146), Scholes emphasizes history, production, and consumption, along with theory, as the bases for organizing the discipline (146-184). There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space for linguistic study in this model, and Scholes’s emphasis on “history” as he outlines it in Rise and Fall does not include the history of the language. He does mention it in passing, though, in reference to disciplinary origins: “As a field of study in the United States, English has been organized around the literary history of England and America. . . . And somewhere near the center, but almost obscured now, lies a philological organization of the field in terms of the history of the English language” (145).

The term philology is rarely used in twenty-first century English departments, although a few years ago a visiting candidate for the chairship of my department said to me (jokingly I presume), “Oh, you’re a philologist!” When I attempted to correct him, he interrupted laughingly to say, “Linguists hate being called philologists!” I did not get the joke, maybe because of the multiple meanings embedded in the term or maybe because of my consciousness of the way those long-ago struggles for disciplinary self-definition and conflicting meanings still reflect the day-to-day realities in my experience as a linguist in an English department. Or maybe it just wasn’t funny.

Further complicating all this is that English departments today, including mine, are still trying to define English studies, to our own satisfaction and to that of our students, in the context of shifting academic and intellectual trends and priorities within and around the discipline. Our work on this project is further complicated by fiscal and political pressures that don’t always (or really ever) prioritize intellectual value, quality, and rigor as highly as we do, which is of course all the more reason for us to insist on these priorities. I guess I don’t really have any answers here, just a lot of questions and hope that a collegial spirit within which a diversity of “English studies” can thrive and a wider intellectual culture in which knowledge is automatically assumed to have intrinsic value will prevail.

Works Cited

Bacon, Alan, ed. (1998). The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate.

Court, Franklin E. (1992). Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750-1900. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Eagleton, Terry (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.

Frantzen, Allen J. (1990). Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.

Graff, Gerald (1987). Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Lerer, Seth (2007). Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. New York: Columbia UP.

McMurtry, Jo (1985). English Language, English Literature: The Creation of an Academic Discipline. Hamden, CT: Archon Press.

Ohmann, Richard (1976). English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford UP.

Palmer, D. J. (1965). The Rise of English Studies: An Account of the Study of English Language and Literature from Its Origins to the Making of the Oxford English School. London: Oxford UP.

Scholes, Robert (1998). The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. New Haven: Yale UP.


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are original photos for which I hold the copyright. Please do not use without permission.


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