Tuesday, November 2, 2010

George Eliot: Composition Theory/Writing Studies Teacher?

image from earlywomenmasters.net
In conversations between those teaching writing, debates often ensue about whether there is a Standard English, Englishes, or simply English. In general, the coded nature of language is something Comp. people, writing instructors, writing center tutors, and students are both fascinated by and agonize over.

Of course, I thought the idea of Standard English was a 21st century theory. It seems the very eloquent George Eliot, however, was laying out Composition Theory lessons way back in the 19th century. In her lengthy novel Middlemarch, Eliot directly addresses language, language acquisition, and authorship. 

For instance, in Chapter 11, Rosamond, Fred, and Mrs. Vincy speak on the subject of slang. Eliot writes:

‘Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?’ said Rosamond, with mild gravity.

‘Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.’ [said Fred]

‘There is correct English: that is not slang.’

‘I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of the prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.’

Here, Eliot shows the relationship between the dominant class and language. The “correct” language is the one of the upper class (prigs), but it also belongs to the authors—the historians and the writers—far more than the common man, the simply wealthy man, or the politician. Is this not still happening today? This brings into question multiple Englishes, accented Englishes, regional Englishes, etc. Who are we to say which is correct? Should we say which is correct?

The list of language quotations certainly doesn't end with this brief snippet, but for the sake of brevity, I will leave you to ponder only one example


Tara said...

I thought the word choice "prig" was really interesting, which has at least a somewhat negative connotation. So the people who've come up with this "standard"/"slang" aren't terribly well thought of, at least by Fred. I suspect Eliot might tend to agree with him since it's her project to write/rewrite history in Romola. Perhaps she finds the historians to be prigs as well.

Wm Chamberlain said...

Same can be said about correct use of grammar (not just slang) and spelling. They all imply education or lack thereof. Interestingly enough, some accents tend to make people sound smarter too (or is that just me?)

NP said...

Tara-- I suspect you're right. This is an idea that Augusta Webster, fellow Victorian woman writer, deals with extensively in her children's book Daffodil and the Croaxaxicans: A Romance of History. It seems like they were on the brink of inventing New Historicism way before Mr. Greenblatt came along.

Wm_Chamberlain-- I have to agree with you, as well. We definitely give grammar/language/accents face value, without taking into account the real value of the person.