Archive for October 2015

The Battle of Agincourt and the Earls and early Dukes of Suffolk   Leave a comment


The Earldom of Suffolk played a significant role in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, and the succeeding Dukedom became pivotal in the Wars of the Roses which dominated the second half of the fifteenth century. It was first created in 1336 for Robert de Ufford, a great landowner in the east of the county and, of course, a close attendant of the king, but the Ufford line failed after only two generations and, in 1385, the title was revived for Michael de la Pole. Despite their name, the de la Poles were not soldier-landowners of Norman stock; they were merchants from Hull, originally named Poole, who had added the French prefix in order to become landowners. They rose to prominence by lending money to Edward III. Michael’s father had bought land in Suffolk and married his son into the great local family of Wingfield. Michael won the confidence of the ten-year old Richard II and used his position to extend and consolidate his Suffolk estates. At Wingfield he built an impressive, new, fortified manor house (see above). Still standing, it is the oldest castle in England to have been continuously occupied to this day. However, in 1387 he was hounded out of office by jealous rivals and had to flee to France disguised as a peasant. His son waited eight years to succeed to the title and then held it only for five weeks, before perishing during Henry V’s Agincourt campaign of 1415. The de la Poles were part of the small army which seized Harfleur, a siege made famous by Shakespeare’s play Henry V, but the elder Earl died, less poetically, of dysentery a few days later. His son, the third Earl, then became one of the few English aristocrats to be killed at the Battle of Agincourt. His cadaver, flayed and pickled after the battle, according to custom, was returned for burial at Wingfield.

The lands and dignities of Suffolk now passed to the third Earl’s nineteen-year-old brother, William. As fourth Earl, he played a leading part in the power struggle which broke out at the accession of the infant Henry VI. William became constable of Wallingford Castle in 1434. In 1437 the Duke constructed the God’s House at Ewelme, a reminder of the de la Pole’s Catholic devotions. William married Thomas Chaucer’s only daughter Alice, by whom she had a son John in 1442 (who became 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463). Alice could be both ruthless and acquisitive in pursuit of her son’s inheritance. She was a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou in 1445, and a patron of the arts.

William worked his way into a position of almost supreme power, bringing about a marriage between the King and Margaret of Anjou, whom many believed to be his mistress, and dominating the pious, weak-minded Henry. His only strong opponent was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He removed that obstacle in 1447 by summoning a parliament to meet at Bury St Edmunds, a town which the Earl could easily pack with his own supporters. When Gloucester arrived he was arrested and confined to his lodgings. The following morning the Duke was found dead. Lands, offices and tithes were now de la Pole’s for the taking, and he became the first Duke of Suffolk in the following year.

William was steward of the household to Henry VI, and from 1447 to 1450 was the dominant force in the council and chief minister to the king; as such he was particularly associated with the unpopular royal policies whose failures culminated in the anti-court protest and political violence of Cade’s Revolt in 1450. Drunk with power, de la Pole had pursued his own policies, accrued further wealth, harrassed his enemies and was quite open in his contempt for public opinion, which was running strongly against him. He was accused of usurping royal power, committing adultery with the Queen, murdering Gloucester, despoiling men of their possessions, giving away lands in France and plotting to put his own son on the throne.

By 1450 Suffolk’s opponents were strong enough to force him to stand trial and William was impeached by the Commons in parliament, but Henry VI intervened to exile his favourite rather than have him tried by the Lords. Instead, he was banished for five years. Dissatisfied with this, his enemies had him followed to Calais. On his way across the Channel his vessel was intercepted by The Nicholas of the Tower whose crew subjected him to a mock trial, after which the Duke’s head was hacked off by an inexpert sailor with a rusty sword and his body was thrown overboard, a scene made even more gruesome by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II, in which the bard also makes fun of the name of the great family. William’s remains were recovered from a beach at Dover, and Alice had her husband buried at the Carthusian Priory in Hull, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk. After William was killed, his properties including the castle and Honour of Wallingford and St Valery passed to Alice. She lent the Crown 3500 Marks and the king spared the fate of attainder of title. She survived many challenges to her position, including a state trial in 1451. Whilst Alice had benefited from Lancastrian connections, she switched to supporting the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455 she was custodian of the Duke of Exeter at Wallingford Castle.

After her husband’s death, Alice had become even more ruthless and took back many of her friend’s Margaret Paston’s manors in Norfolk, with dubious title deeds. The Pastons now grew to loathe the Yorkist family, notorious for their corruption. William’s heir, John, was the greatest landowner in Suffolk and Norfolk and kept an army of retainers to enforce his will.


Above: The Paston House in Norwich.

The Paston family were among those who fell foul of the second Duke on more than one occasion. In 1465 de la Pole sent men to destroy the Pastons’ house at Hellesdon. Margaret Paston reported the incident to her husband:

There cometh much people daily to wonder thereupon, both of Norwich and of other places, and they speak shamefully thereof. The duke had better than a thousand pounds that it had never been done; and ye have the more good will of the people that it is so foully done.

The second Duke of Suffolk could afford to upset farmers, merchants and peasants. He was married to Elizabeth, the sister of King Edward IV. His mother, Alice, remained castellan at Wallingford until at least 1471 and possibly until her death in 1475. In 1472 she became custodian of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron. A wealthy landowner, Alice de la Pole held land in 22 counties, and was a patron to poet John Lydgate, no doubt playing a role in having his poetry printed by William Caxton, along with the works of her grandfather, Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Language of History – Part Two: ‘Figuring it out’.   Leave a comment

Figuring it out: What is History Teaching and Learning?

I asked this question of a number of colleagues in the 1990s in the context of an ethnographic research programme carried out into dual language teachers and learners of history in Hungary. One teacher, Robi, put it like this:

History is not at all giving out dates and definitions; it’s a kind of thinking style or a framework of mind – and if you can give it to them…then that’s very important… I try to make parallels…because I want them to realize that history is not a separate…subject which you learn and there is no connection with life, so I like making parallels; some people don’t like (that). I had a teacher in university who firmly believed that we shouldn’t make any parallels, I remember. But I like making parallels because (although) sometimes they are not good, sometimes they can help understanding.

On the question of the presentation of different historians’ perspectives, another of my colleagues, Stefi, felt that whilst students may find it difficult to cope with a wide diversity of views in the time available, they needed at least to be moved away from the notion that whatever was written down in the history book, that’s true and this is how it was! In particular, they needed to be made aware that answers, whilst never final, are to be found in the complex webs of causation. Robi felt that if we had more books presenting differing perspectives, the students could then figure out (for) themselves by only using the facts…why that happened. They would then, obviously they thought, ‘come up with different views’. This is where we came, in our discussions, to the classroom discourse, and how collaborative it could be.

Stefi recalled that, after a certain time of looking at a certain topic, she moved away from looking at it as a collection of data and dates and names by trying to analyse the particular problem in the topic and predict the questions which the students might have, producing a presentation as a kind of answer to these questions. Robi agreed with this, defining a topic in history as a collection of problems. This also redefines the role of the history teacher as problem-poser rather than problem-solver, and suggests that the most important teacher-competences were therefore the ability to identify and present general issues or problems to students, to ask more specific questions of the students in clear, precise language, and to provide ‘model’ answers without giving the impression that they are either ‘correct’ or ‘objective’.

These brief extracts from our workshops in Hungary (see also the appendix) illustrate something of the value of developing teachers’ awareness of self in relation to subject. The next stage in teacher development is to explore teachers’ own theories related to what they perceive the discourses of their subjects to be. A useful way of doing this is through the exploration of metaphors. For instance, with history teachers, we might describe the discourse of history as being somewhat like an iceberg in terms of our awareness, i.e. that for most learners and teachers it is the story or narrative element which is above surface, most apparent in setting it apart from other curriculum areas. This is the one-fifth of the iceberg which always appears above the surface, but it is supported in this by four-fifths of chronicling and interpreting which lies beneath the surface, not so apparent or obvious in its day-to-day usage. This can be best shown in the following pictogram:

Fig. ‘The Iceberg Principle’


The iceberg diagram therefore represents a hierarchy of historical language. In developing this metaphor, I would explain that some theorists have argued (Husbands, 1996) that history has no specialist vocabulary, since it deals with length, breadth and depth of human experience. However, this does not mean that historical language can simply be acquired; there are key elements of the discourse which can be taught, including key terms and core concepts, starting with the terminology used to describe the tiers of historical language themselves.


So, starting from the bottom up, two-fifths of the language of history could be described as the essentially fixed language of chronicling, the past-into-present intercourse, including the division of historical time into era, century, millennium, period, ancient, medieval, modern; the authentic names for events, dates, sources and artifacts, and the period-specific terms or ‘archaisms’ e.g. fief, beadle, reeve, galleon (used in the past only). Put simply, this is the raw data of the past itself and the discourse markers are usually conveyed in question form by simple ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ prefixes. To answer these, the learner is required to demonstrate a clear understanding of chronology and an ability to relate past events and people to each other within a series of timescales.


The middle two-fifths of the iceberg could therefore be described as comprising the more shifting language of interpretation, the present-into-past intercourse of historical description and analysis (cause, factor, similarity, difference, change, continuity, primary source, secondary source, evidence), combined with terms which have shifted their meaning in transition from the past into present (nobility, monarchy, manufacture/ factory, orders, classes, revolution, radical, conservative, liberal, democracy). The typical discourse features of this tier in the hierarchy would be represented in question form as ‘what factors/ causes…?’, ‘what was the significance of…?’, ‘what do you think were…?’, together with questions prefaced by ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ To operate successfully within this tier, the learner is required to demonstrate an ability to use the language of enquiry in framing their own research questions, to retrieve and evaluate information from a variety of sources and resources, including archaeological evidence and artefacts, and to supply coherent answers relating the processes of change and continuity in human societies over periods of time.


The final fifth of the iceberg, representing the most sophisticated tier of discourse, combines all the structural and functional language contained in the four-fifths below the surface in addition to narrating the past using historical concepts and figures of speech such as the Victorian Working Class(es), the English Revolution, Enlightened Absolutism. These are labels for larger sets of ideas, drawing on higher levels of abstraction (Edwards: 1978). Questions at this level might be phrased ‘how far…?’, ‘to what extent…?’, ‘was this….or…..?’ Alternatively, they might be given simply in a statement form which is followed by a request to the student to ‘explain’ or ‘discuss’. The ability to produce extensive and ‘mature’ narratives at this tier of discourse requires the learner to demonstrate a clear understanding of historical writing, including the turns of phrase and figures of speech used by historians; to organise and communicate the results of enquiries in a variety of written, oral, pictorial and dramatic forms, including debate, role-play and re-enactment.

In addition to linguistic awareness, skills and abilities, learners in all three tiers also need to apply, to varying degrees, the other core educational competences in geography, numeracy, computer literacy, problem-solving, inter-cultural values and conflict resolution. These are common humanistic competences which are perhaps less dependent on linguistic skills. Therefore, historical learning cannot be treated as a metaphorically isolated ‘iceberg’, but needs to be placed within a more holistic ‘ecology’ of education. That, of course, is the responsibility of ‘craft’ historians, history teachers and educators in general. We need to remind ourselves, as well as our students, that history is about the whole of human life in the past, related to the present.

What does this look like in practice? Teaching and Training.

In our initial workshops, Robi highlighted the difference between chronicling and narrating when dealing with a topic like the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Whilst a purely chronicling approach might deal solely with the events in sequence, a what happened at Crécy? approach, a truly narrative approach might focus on the role of the Welsh bowmen in the battles of Crécy (1349) to Agincourt (1415) relative to other military factors and developments. It would result in a question emerging in preparation and teaching such as how did warfare change by the power of the longbow? It would refer back to previously gained knowledge about these changes from studies of earlier chronological topics. So, a narrative approach would, in simple terms, combine ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ to result, through interpretation of the relationship between events, factors, in an explanation of ‘how’ the change transpired. A chronicling approach, by contrast, would simply confine itself to ‘when?’ and ‘what?’ and result in students producing a timeline of dates and events in their notes.

Narrative approaches turn time-lines into flow-diagrams or web-charts, on which references back to earlier factors and changes are shown. The ‘mature’ narrator is thus able to produce an extensive explanation of the process of change following the ‘SEE’ pattern familiar to many history teachers – make a Statement, Explain its validity and provide Examples from sources of evidence to support it. In any teacher-training course, the tiers of historical discourse would need be matched with these types of notional cognitive and linguistic hierarchies. Whilst a great deal of work has been done in recent decades on adolescent cognitive development (Shemilt: 1980, 1984; quoted in Husbands: 1996), very little work has been done on linguistic competences of students, whether in their first or second language, beyond the general recognition that historical description is drenched in linguistic convention (Husbands).

More positively, ‘studying’ history should enable the learner, at any level, to personalise topics and content more generally, to ‘unpack’ complex historical processes and relate them to descriptions in their own lives (Husbands). The metaphor of unpacking personal baggage in a training workshop is potentially a useful tool for a variety of reasons; a specific use here might be to demonstrate how students need to ask and answer the question ‘what’s your story?’ by getting them to relate the happenings they can label in the lives of recent generations of their own families to contemporary-historical events, developing elementary chronicling language in the creation of simple time-charts or time-lines.

At the level of interpreting, activities might be developed to bestow ‘significance’ to ‘historic’ events in teachers’ lives, perhaps drawing twists and turns along a teacher’s ‘career path’, encouraging the use of interpretative language. Finally, being asked to explain or narrate their path (or those of others) involves changing word order and tense structures to show cause and effect, etc. The representation of significant events in words and pictures might also provide plenty of scope for the exploration of figurative language in narrative accounts. Activities like these might enable teachers to personalise ‘the iceberg principle’ as well as providing an introductory exercise with students to gauge both linguistic and cognitive levels.


Story as a Vehicle to Learning and Teaching History

In any teacher-training course, this sequence of activities would lead on naturally to considering ways of working with stories, or ‘Story as Vehicle’ (Garvie, 1990) for language learning. Whilst English language teachers have come to accept this as a valid methodology in their teaching in recent decades, it has tended to be jettisoned from the ‘baggage’ of many history teachers, largely because narrative approaches have been seen as methodologically counterpoised to interpretative ones. Teachers telling stories, giving anecdotes or providing parallel narratives, fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s, to be replaced by an emphasis on students developing analytical tools and skills in pursuit of scientific ‘objectivity’ (Husbands); in Hungary, as demonstrated in my workshops and interviews with Hungarian teachers of history, the method has survived such ‘pedagogical’ pressures, and has continued to be used as a means of helping students to access the past.

Some skeptical ‘western’ academics have represented the narrative form as an immature mode of analysis; history teachers have also tended to be dismissive, associating it with the ‘great tradition’ and ‘active didacticism’ of the history teacher relaying a mainly national folklore to essentially passive pupils (Sylvester: 1994, quoted in Husbands). This was never a real problem in Hungary and in central Europe more generally, where the post-war linguistic, philosophical and pedagogical traditions were, until recently at least, never so nationalistic. More recently, cultural anthropology has reinstated the role of narrative accounts in history throughout Europe, particularly through the development of ethnographic approaches to primary sources (Husbands). A pan-European training course for history teachers would need to build on these approaches to show how they have led to a methodological emphasis on students themselves figuring out what the stories mean or show.

In this approach to story, the temporal sequence is often subordinated to explanation and interpretation – back-tracking to clarify causal connections (Lively, 1979). The teacher therefore facilitates the story-telling, or collaborates in the telling; he certainly does not provide a moral, though he may help learners to discover their own – the exercise of history is never an amoral or neutral venture. No story is simply received or heard; it is re-made, recounted, with the sequence and characters altered. The listeners have an active role in this process, and their expressions of interest, boredom, apathy and concern shape the story. They are taught to listen to the silences among the traces left by people of past times (Williams, 1979), because these pauses may be evidence in themselves, which also need interpreting. Their stories thereby become shared experiences, as they are ‘related’ to ‘the organising principles’ of causation, continuity and change involved in the development of complex historical discourse (Husbands). This is the major difference between the language of interpretation and that of narrative; the former is essentially divergent, because it explores the past in relation to differing present positions (a woman probably will not ask the same questions as a man, for example). Narrative language attempts to arrive at a shared understanding of the past, and is therefore integrative and convergent.

In a training pack, or on a training course, these theories could be given a practical focus by lesson planning based on language classroom activities similar to those set out by Morgan and Rinvolucri (1983), Rosen (1988) and Garvie (1990), among others. Their use of ‘staging-posts’, repetitions and other story-telling techniques could be used to demonstrate the concept of discourse markers. Teachers could then be asked, in collaborative groups, to reproduce historical narratives from their own teaching experiences, sketching simple outline chronicles, then re-ordering, using a variety of different time-expressions and tenses (according to predetermined language levels), also incorporating staging-posts and repetitions. Each group could then, in turn, present their story in a micro-teaching exercise to the other participants.

Developing Language Awareness

As a means of developing language awareness among both pre-service and in-service teachers, they could be given the following ‘grammatical guidelines’ for reproducing stories (examples taken from/ adapted from Fisher & Williams, ‘Past into Present 3’ (1989: 31-33):

  • For chronicling, use the simple past to show a sequence of events; e.g. …

“In July 1789, people in Paris attacked the Bastille; In August, they published ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man’.”

  • Use the past continuous with the past simple to show the relationship between general activities and specific actions; e.g. …

“By mid-1793 France was at war with most of Europe. The British, Dutch and Austrian armies were invading from the north, the Prussians from the north-east, the Piedmontese and Austrians from the east, and the Spaniards from the south.”

  • For interpreting and narrating, use the past perfect to show the relationship between the event you have chosen to begin with and an earlier causative event or situation, e.g. …

“A young army volunteer, Gabriel David, was found guilty of writing ‘infamous words’ and was imprisoned. He had written ‘shit on the nation’ on his leave pass.”

Ten Steps on a Linguistic Staircase

A linguistic framework would help move history teachers away from a transmission model of history which is increasingly inappropriate in both multi-lingual and inter-cultural terms, in the context of the modern multi-cultural and international classrooms in Europe (Husbands). It would replace this with an interpretative-narrative model, in which teacher-talk and the way learners interact with both the teacher and their peers, play central roles in how they learn about the past. All learners need the scaffolding of historical language in order to interpret human experience, and within it their own individual, familial and cultural identities. In addition to raising awareness about discourse features and markers, there are some specific techniques which history teachers can be helped to develop to provide students with greater access to an increasingly international curriculum, whether delivered in their first or second language. These are partly adapted from Sears (1998) and are set out here as ‘ten tips’, rather than as a set of formal recommendations, so that teachers can be encouraged to experiment with them as part of their own classroom action research:

  • stop to ‘talk with texts’, especially by displaying the text on an interactive white board, so that the learners can also engage in dialogue with the text in a shared activity, rather than viewing reading and interpreting text as an individual exercise;

  • show students how to highlight and extract information which they can then summarise in their own words; modify and gloss texts, especially using cloze gap-fill exercises;

  • develop group jigsaw reading techniques, so that learners are not overcome by the sheer volume of text, but can share ideas in working out meanings, and can then collaborate in presenting their own interpretations and summaries;

  • use visual adaptations, especially web-charts to show factors in a web of causation; use interactive CD-roms, Power-Point presentations and subtitled DVDs, providing glossaries as appropriate;

  • provide a balance of activities in all four skills areas – reading, listening, speaking and writing – with plenty of pre-reading and post-reading comprehension activities; don’t allow any students to be passive; challenge them to explain meanings, give synonyms and make simple linguistic and cultural comparisons;

  • give presentations of new ‘key’ concepts and terms, especially for abstract archaisms; present ‘shifting’ vocabulary in context, e.g. ‘comrade’; a glossary may not be enough; a web-chart may be better, showing context and collocation, or etymology and parts of speech;

  • use visual prompts through ‘vocabouts’, identifying simple words, phrases and especially archaic usages in mini ‘field’ trips, and realia, photographs, maps and other pictorial clues in the classroom; make clear distinctions between ‘past only’ and ‘past into present’ vocabulary;

  • allow translation with fixed meanings in bilingual groups, in conjunction with an English to English glossary with phonic spellings; encourage learners to do preparative reading and note-making before topics are dealt with in classwork, giving them an opportunity to prepare the new vocabulary; set up, encourage and monitor L1 subject reading, using the Internet where other L1 resources are limited or unavailable.

  • teach learners a list of common abbreviations (including Latin forms – e.g., etc., i.e.) and show them how develop their own ‘shorthand’ system to take and make grammar-less notes at speed, and then to re-formulate these into connected prose;

  • set process-writing exercises, especially in project work and collaborative course work, so that learners can benefit from your comments before producing a final draft; don’t set writing only as an individual homework activity or use homework simply for writing-up; use the SEE pro-forma – Statement, Explanation, Evidence as a ‘template’ for academic writing in groups.

These ‘tips’ have been given in no particular order of priority, since this will be determined by the teaching and learning context, together with the needs, language levels and ages of learners.

The Continuing Upward Spiral of Development

My own teaching and classroom research have shown how ethnographic approaches, an essential part of ‘the Humanities’, lead to a form of continuing professional development which enables teachers to focus on areas of concern and enthusiasm within their own teaching. In my case, a shared interest in the nature of collaborative discourse in the dual language history classroom has led to a significant raising of awareness and sharing of teaching resources and insights. Personally, I continued to develop them to meet challenges involved in integrating second language students into mainstream English-medium subject area teaching, and more recently in multi-lingual contexts in international secondary schools. These have provided fresh discourses through continuous engagement in new ethnographic cycles and collaborative upward spirals with learners and teachers.

Appendix: On ‘What is history?’ (Jan 1996)

“Robi: It’s the accumulated experiences and knowledge .., the past …, events of the past=

“Stefi: =Or story about the past=

“R: =Story about the past, yes …,=


“R:=Events of the past …, interaction …, .., what processes and events had an influence on processes and events in other parts of the world ..,/=


“R: ..,/= .., how the events happening in different parts of the world interlinked with each other …, connected to each other .., is a cumulative process …, how one thing instigated the happening of another thing (…….) …, that’s what I’m most interested in .., this part of history ..,=


“R: .., ‘történelem’ .., comes from ‘történet’ …, linked with story .., the word story, I think ..,=

“S: = Something which happened some time ago …


“R: One thing that I read once and I really like this .., that if you take logic .., as a discipline (….) logika? /mm/.., if you take formal logic .., then, according to formal logic, you have a premise or two premises; you have a conclusion and you’re almost certain, especially in sciences, if that happens ((..)) certainly something else will happen ((non-verbal actions)) .., (for example) if you boil the water and the water’s going to be hot .., it will evaporate .., OK? //mm// .., so that’s why .., you can ((coughs)) e:r, e:r, foresee, …, or you can foretell (…) what will happen .., because the direction of logic (so it’s) forward-going //mm// but with history, OK? /mm/ e:r .., the enquiry – or the enquiry of history – is turning backwards /mm/.., so it’s not necessary .., so what will happen according to formal logic in sciences – what will happen later on – is necessary .., /mm/ but if you have an event which happened – let’s say there was a war in 1515, OK? .., you cannot say with certainty what was the cause of that war, because it happened earlier …, /mm/ do you understand that? And the rules of logic – the rules of formal logic – cannot be applied to that /mm/ , so one thing can have many causes /((……..))/=



“R: = /((………)) If we go further and further back then we don’t have enough information, if we’re talking about the Roman .., e:r, Roman Empire or the , e:r, Greeks .., we have limited resources (…), sources (…), and on the basis of that limited sources we have to figure out why the thing happened /mm/ .., right? So partly we have limited (re)sources and partly the rule(s) of formal logic is forward-going, so we cannot say that that happened exactly because of that. //aha, mm// Because, e:r, e:r, the reasons behind the events, or behind certain processes, could be, e:r, could be absolutely different; so it could happen because of the social situation; it could happen because of the economic crisis; it could happen because of personalities (right) /mm/ for example, the French Revolution (and the) Jacobins, when they argued with each other /mm/ – Danton and Robespierre – it was all about personalities; or the Girondins and the Jacobins, it was all about personal, e:r, e:r, what is that?, e:r, ..,=

“S: =Rivalry?

“R: =Yes, personal rivalry /aha/ yes, they wanted to have more .., so there could be several causes and we can never be sure, e:r, what exactly contributed to the, e:r, development of a certain situation, and that is very interesting, I think /aah/ in history.


((pause in recording))

“((conversation in Hungarian))/

“Andrew: / Right, so, (….) what you’re saying… is that when you do a scientific experiment, for example, /uhhumm/ you can isolate what the cause or the catalyst of a certain reaction is /exactly! yes, .., with great certainty!/ …, I mean I often talk about catalysts when I’m teaching history as well as causes, you know – origins, causes, catalysts etc., /uhum/ and it’s a very complex situation /yes!/, and you’re saying that history therefore cannot be seen as a kind of science in that way?/exactly!/ or certainly not as a pure science?/yes,yes!/ but the most it can be seen as is an, uhm, applied science /yes/ if you like, e:r and I suppose the other question is there .., of course we apply ourselves to the past, don’t we? /uhum/ and we look at the past, e:r /uhum/ with our own particular concerns .., so the /yes!/ questions a woman asks about the past /exactly!/ (….) would be different from the questions a man /exactly/ asks; …, different the..the..e:r questions a central European /uhum/ would ask would be different from a western European /yes!/, different from an African etc.? /yes/

“R: Yes, that was exactly another point that I wanted to raise (out) of that; that was one of the points that I said to the American students when I was teaching there .., I..I..I see history and I teach history in a subjective way; there is no objective history teaching, I think, //uhu, aha!// because everybody .., yeyeah, there’s a difference between a woman and a man asking questions about history and our personal interests, our personality, what we are interested in (…), so I think history teaching is subjective.”


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Marland, M. (1977), Language Across the Curriculum: the Implementation of the Bullock Report in the Secondary School. London: Heinemann.

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White, H (1978), Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, H. (1987), The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Zalotay, M. and Salamon, G. (1995), Hark! I hear a white horse coming. Budapest: Elsö Kiadás.

Back to the Eighties: The Growth of English Language Teaching in Hungary.   Leave a comment


On Thursday, 22nd October 2015, a group of us were invited to attend a tree-planting ceremony at the Kodály Zoltán Music School in Kecskemét (Hungary). After a musical introduction performed by students of the school, including folk songs in English, we went out into the front garden to plant the tree. After a short and characteristically witty speech by Péter Medgyes (President of IATEFL), we then took turns in shovelling the earth around the little fir tree. This caused me to reflect on some of the local events of a generation ago which helped to establish the Kecskemét Association of Teachers of English (KATE), which in turn helped to found IATEFL Hungary a year later, with its inaugural conference held in the town in February 1991.

The Eighties: Educational Exchanges

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940. It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. Together with Tom Leimdorfer, the Quakers’ Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House in London, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, I met teachers from ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of 1988. Although we knew that ‘one swallow does not a summer make’, we were particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, children were enabled to speak out about their experiences of violence in their societies. In the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.

On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became very excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country. This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, the then Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the support of Coventry City Council and the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator. The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer. At the time, the Exchange Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’. In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’.

We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than a generation ago.

Into the Nineties: TEMPUS and IATEFL

In October 1989, I entered one country and left another without crossing a second border. On the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (no longer referred to as a Counter-Revolution), the name of that country had changed from the ‘Hungarian People’s Republic’ to ‘the Republic of Hungary’. It was during that week that I also received formal invitations to become an Associate Tutor at the Kecskemét College of Education, meeting its Principal and staff. I returned on Valentine’s Day 1990, having won the sponsorship of the Westhill and Newman Colleges in Selly Oak, Birmingham, to establish a student-teacher exchange. I began teaching at the College, supervising teaching practice in the primary schools, and working on the joint application to Brussels for TEMPUS Funding from Birmingham, Rennes and Kecskemét. One of my first duties was to give a presentation on the Higher Education system in England and Wales to the College Staff Meeting. An elderly colleague at the back of the room protested at the brevity of the Ministry of Education’s recent letter informing institutions that they were now free to follow their own path. ‘We don’t know how’ he pointed out, ‘we’ve always got our instructions from the Ministry!’

The first leg of the student-teacher exchange took place the following January with a visit to Birmingham of the Kecskemét students, who were training to become specialist teachers of English at the primary school level (6-14 years of age).  The students were given a multi-cultural tour of Birmingham, its schools and its churches, Quaker meeting houses, mosques, gudwaras and synagogues.  In February, at the same time as the Birmingham lecturers were visiting in order to set up the TEMPUS programme, the first Hungarian IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference was being held in Kecskemét. With many American and British guests visiting the Conference, among teachers from all over Hungary, it suddenly felt as if the whole world had descended, with the snow, on the small provincial town. The following poem, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of this event, takes up the story:



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   Kata Ittzes and Péter Medgyes plant a tree in commemoration of the twenty-five years of IATEFL’s work among the teachers of Hungary, 22nd Oct 2015.

The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.



Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.


Alston, S. (1995), History and Language, in Teaching History, 81.

Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1995), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Chandler, A.J. (1994b), Education using Dual Language Approaches – an identification of issues and some outline proposals for teacher education (unpublished M.Ed. essay).

Chandler, A.J. (1996), Dual-ling in Hungary: An Overview of Dual Language Education in Hungarian Secondary Schools (unpublished article).

Cook, C. (1998) A Dictionary of Historical Terms. London: Macmillan.

Cook, G. (1989), Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doughty, S. and Thompson, G. (1983), Problem English: A Practical Guide for Hungarian Learners of English. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó.

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Freeborn, D. (1992), From Old English to Standard English. London: Macmillan.

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Gunning, D. (1983), The history teacher and the problem of written language in Fines, J. (1983), Teaching History. Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall.

Gunning, D. (1978), The Teaching of History. London: Croom Helm.

Howel, S. (1657), Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London….whereunto is added…Westminster. London: Twiford.

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Jenkins, K. (1992), Rethinking History. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, K. (1995), On ‘What is History?’: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. London: Routledge.

Koselleck, R. (1985), Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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Marshall, B.K. (1992), Teaching the Postmodern. London: Routledge.

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Marwick, A. (1970), The Nature of History. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848), The Communist Manifesto. London: The Communist League.

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October-November 1945 in Hungary: The Smallholders win the First Elections in the First Republic   1 comment


Above: The Republican Coat of Arms of 1945

Between 1945 and 1949 Hungary’s political system altered radically and violently. The dozen or so political parties which had been revived or established in 1945 prepared to contest fair and free elections by merging themselves into four main parties, two representing the peasants and two representing the workers. The latter two, the Social Democrats and the Communists were later to merged in 1948, to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, a “people’s democracy” was established which essentially promised to follow a reformist, peaceful path towards socialism, with concessions of a more revolutionary nature offered to the Communists. Gradually, but almost inexorably, these compromises, or ‘salami slices’ began to add up to the predominance of the communists within the HWPP, and to the domination of this party over all others.

Among the leaders of the Hungarian Communists, who became extraordinarily active first in Moscow and then in Debrecen and Budapest in 1944-45, Mátyás Rákosi played an essential part from the beginning. However, in the early years of the new Republic, from 1945 to 1948, those who, unlike Rákosi and his clique, had remained in Hungary and allied themselves with the loose resistance groups, engaging in ‘illegal’ activities throughout the war and in the pro-Axis period prior to it, still had some influence within the party and the provisional parliament.

Hungarian society, although struggling with hyperinflation from the middle of 1945, remained optimistic in the autumn, prior to the elections. The announcement of free elections was not only required by the Yalta agreement, but regarded as essential due to the fact that truly revolutionary transformations had already taken place in the social and political fabric of the country. Already the coat of arms and official stamp of the state and the legislative assembly had changed, representing a radical break with the monarchic and aristocratic ascendancy of the past.

However, this symbolic transition needed to be replaced by a more far-reaching transformation in the composition of both the legislative and executive branches of government. There were still many doubts about the legality of many of the changes which had been effected well before the peace settlement had been confirmed in September. Special ties had been developing between Moscow and Budapest since the overthrow of the Regency the previous autumn, and not just between comrades, as the recently published writings of Domokos Szent-Iványi, the Regent’s envoy to Moscow, confirm. An agreement on close economic co-operation and even the full resumption of full diplomatic relations, led the western powers to urge free elections in Hungary and to refrain from recognising the Provisional Government until the Soviets agreed to their being held.

The elections, by secret ballot and without census, of 4 November 1945 were the most democratic and the freest in Hungary until those of 1990. Only the leaders of the dissolved right-wing parties, volunteers in the SS, and those interned or being prosecuted by the people’s courts were barred from voting. The liberal electoral law was also supported by the Communists, who were not even bothered by their failure of their proposal to field a single list of candidates on the part of the coalition parties, which would have ensured a majority of the parties of the Left: intoxicated by their recruitment successes and misjudging the effect of the land reform on their appeal, they expected an enthralling victory by winning as much as seventy per cent of the vote. To their bitter disappointment, the result was just the opposite: the Smallholders, winning the contest in all of the sixteen districts, collected 57% of the vote, the Social Democrats scoring slightly above the Communists at 17%. The National Peasant Party won a mere 7% of the vote.

Of the many reasons for the success of the Smallholders and the failure of the Communists at the elections, one was surely the fact that Cardinal Mindszenty, infuriated at the overwhelming majority of its landed property without compensation, and at the clergy’s being excluded from the elections upon Communist initiative, condemned the Marxist evil in a pastoral letter and called the faithful to support the Smallholders. Nevertheless, the verdict of nearly 4.8 million voters, over 90% of those enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for a property-owning parliamentary democracy and market economy over a state-managed socialist economy. They hoped that this preference would be respected by the Soviets, in spite of their occupying forces, who were expected to leave once the peace treaty was signed. However, guided by the same expectation and wishing to avoid confrontation with the Soviets, the Smallholders yielded to Voroshilov, who made it plain that only a grand coalition, in which the Communists would preserve their position, would be acceptable to them.

The cabinet was formed after the debate on the form of the post-war Hungarian state decided, in spite of a vigorous monarchist campaign led by Cardinal Minszenty and some uncertainty on the issue among the Smallholders, who eventually came out in favour of a continuation of the Republic. Zoltán Tildy was elected President on 1 February 1946, with Ferenc Nagy as Prime Minister of a government in which the Smallholders held half of the offices, but with the Communists in charge of two key ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior, which controlled the police.

There was also some disagreement about whether Nagy or Tildy should be the Smallholders’ candidate for President. Some of the deputies in Parliament declared that they had only voted for a republic on the understanding that Nagy would be its Head of State. He was more popular than Tildy, but argued successfully with his party members that Tildy was older and more experienced. However, the failure of Nagy to persuade Tildy to give up his plans for the Presidency, severely weakened the potential resistance to the eventually takeover of the Communists, since the MFM (Hungarian Independence Movement), the multi-lingual diplomat Szent-Iványi among them, had hoped to monitor and influence all communications between the Head of State and the Russians. Nagy, lacking in both international experience and foreign languages, would be more dependent on Szent-Iványi as Chief Secretary to Cabinet of the Head of State.  The agreement of the two men, made behind closed doors on the night of the general election victory, to exchange roles threw this plan into disarray, as Szent-Iványi recalled in his papers:

After that scene (i.e. Nagy’s capitulation, surrender to Tildy) Saláta (a leading younger and ‘most talented’  member of the MFM) hurried to see me. He was very upset, he could not hide his emotions. ‘Unbelievable’, he began, ‘we have carried out to the letter our plan of May, and now, we have to see that all our efforts and work are destroyed by one single man’s action, an action motivated purely by sentimental reasons. Well, Nagy has proved that he is not a real politician since he is too influenced by emotions… But now, what still could be done?’

While he was talking, I was thinking of the series of misfortunes which had so often destroyed our… plans, invariably the fiasco was caused by an event or the action of one individual. So: Darányi, who was one of the pillars of the work I had been planning, dies in October 1939; Teleki, who was my main pillar and hope as far as the futures of Hungary and East Central Europe were concerned, passes away under tragic circumstances in April 1941; the failure of Nicky Horthy and even of his father in October 1944 after all our preparations. Was there anything we could still do? And hope for?

After the elections and Ferenc Nagy’s failure, a great change took place in… the leadership and activities of the MFM.


At a time when we are remembering the contribution made by another President, Árpád Göncz, who became the first Head of State of Hungary’s Third Republic in 1990, and held the office for ten years, a decade in which he showed great statesmanship and was well-respected by the Hungarian people, it seems strange to also reflect on how different the course of Hungary’s post-war history might have been had Ferenc Nagy taken the Presidency. Perhaps it would have made little difference to the eventual outcome of the machinations of the Rákosi clique in the three years to the establishment of a Communist state in 1948, but had both Tildy and Nagy shown greater courage in their choices, Hungary’s first republican government might have been better-placed to assert its independence from Moscow’s influence and ultimate control. To fall into the trap of historical inevitability in rejecting the role played by individual choices would be to replace the humanity involved in history with another kind of fatalistic historicism, which has sometimes proved popular in post-Communist Hungary.


István Lázár (1989), A Short History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina Books.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013). The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1936-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.


Autumn into Winter in World War One: 15 October – 31 December 1915   Leave a comment

Posted October 14, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

These Weeks in World War One: 25 September – 14 October 1915: The Battle of Loos   Leave a comment

Andrew James

It will cost us dearly and we shall not get far

General Rawlinson, commander-in-chief, IV Corps, British Army.

This British offensive was to be in support of the French, who were keen to have a quick and successful offensive before winter, and to help the beleaguered Russians, bearing the brunt of the German attacks in the east.

British General, Douglas Haig was well aware of the difficulties facing his men: the battlefield was full of slag heaps and mine works, affording the Germans excellent defensive positions. Despite their reluctance French commander General Joffre was adamant that the British attack. Forced to act before his New Army was ready, Haig still optimistically thought a breakthrough possible. The Allies had a five to one advantage in troop numbers.

The attack of 75,000 troops made some progress; however, it slowed due to lack…

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Posted October 13, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   2 comments

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.


As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.


The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.


While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.


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Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;


… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.


His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.


What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?


Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.


The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.


O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’


The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.


Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Eighteenth Century English: ‘The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue’.   Leave a comment


Modern Standard English was achieved when writers began to use prescribed and agreed forms of vocabulary and grammar, regardless of the dialectal variety that they spoke in everyday life. As a result, regional and class dialects, which were themselves no less rule-governed and systematic than the agreed standard form, were increasingly regarded as inferior to it. In the eighteenth century, there were major shifts and changes in attitudes towards, and beliefs about, the standard language and the dialects. The linguistic changes which took place from the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century were relatively few and far between.

During the eighteenth century, many pamphlets, articles and grammar books were published on the question of correcting, improving and, when and if possible, fixing the language in printed form. One word that recurred time and time again in referring to the state of the English language was corruption. It can be found in the following text, an extract from an article by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the journal The Tatler. The complete article took the form of a supposed letter written to Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;


There are some Abuses among us of great Consequence, the Reformation of which is properly your Province, tho’, as far as I have been conversant in your Papers, you have not yet considered them. These are, the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers, the great depravity of our Taste, and the continual Corruption of our Style…

These two Evils, Ignorance and Want of Taste, have produced a Third; I mean the continual Corruption of our English Tongue, which, without some timely Remedy, will suffer more by the false Refinements of twenty Years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing Hundred…

What Swift disliked most were certain new colloquial words and phrases, together with fashionable features of pronunciation, all part of spoken rather than written usage. He specifically condemned these as features of Style, that is, of deliberate choices of words and structures from the resources of the language. At the same time, he referred in general to the Corruption of the English Tongue, an evaluative metaphor that implied worsening and decay, as if the style he disliked to hear could affect everyone’s use of English in both oral and written forms.

This attitude of condemnation, focusing on relatively trivial aspects of contemporary usage, was taken up time and time again throughout the eighteenth century, and continued until the late twentieth century. It is important to study it and its effects, one of which was that non-standard varieties of the language tended to become stigmatised as substandard, while Standard English was thought of as the English language, rather than as the prestige dialect of the language.

The written language and speech of educated men and women of the south-east, especially in London, Oxford and Cambridge, was the source of Standard English. This was the sixteenth century writer John Hart’s best and most perfite English and George Puttenham’s usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London. The following text from James Beattie’s Theory of Language of 1774, given in facsimile, illustrates the establishment of this choice:



Swift’s concern for the state of the language, as he saw it, was so great that he published a serious proposal for establishing some sort of ’academy’ to regulate and maintain the standards of the English language, similar to the Academie Francaise which had been set up in 1634. The arguments used were similar to those he had expressed in The Tatler in 1710, but he also added the idea of ascertaining the language, fixing, making it certain, so that it would not be subject to future corruptions. Below are some facsimile extracts from his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue; in a Letter to the Most Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain, 1712:


Swift thought that the century from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 to the beginning of the Civil Wars in 1642 was a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of improvement in the language, although he also believed that it had not yet reached a state of perfection. This belief that languages could be improved and brought to a state of perfection was a commonly held one among Swift’s contemporaries, though it is not widely believed in our time. Confusion between language and language use caused one to be identified as synonymous with the other, so that a period of great writers is often referred to as a period of ‘greatness’ for the language. Swift identified and associated styles which he disliked with corruption of the English language.

Swift’s assertion of the concept that language need not be ‘perpetually changing’, and that ascertaining or fixing the English language was desirable was disputed by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who published his Dictionary in 1755. He referred to Swift’s proposal in the preface to the dictionary, revealing himself to be sceptical of the possibility of success, although he shared his belief in the concept of perfection and corruption of language:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

… tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration: we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

Some writers of what has become known in Literature as The Augustan Age believed that a state of Classical perfection would be achieved some time in their forseeable future, but later eighteenth century grammarians placed it in the early and mid-eighteenth century language of writers like Addison, Steele, Pope and Swift himself. The period is known as the Augustan Age because it was compared with the period of the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD, when great Latin writers like Virgil, Horace and Ovid flourished. The language and literature of Classical Rome and Greece still formed the foundation of education in the nineteenth century. Writers in English copied the forms of Classical literature, like the epic, the ode and dramatic tragedy, while the Latin and Greek languages were models of perfection in their preserved, unchangeable state, to which it was hoped that English could aspire and attain. The influence and sound of Latin and Greek helps to Swift’s dislike of ‘Northern’ clusters of consonants.

Of course, the vernacular Latin language of the first century had continued to change, so that after several centuries its several dialects had evolved into French, Italian, Spanish and the Romance languages. But Classical Latin was fixed and ascertained, because its vocabulary and grammar were derived from the literature of its greatest literary period. This state seemed to scholars and writers to be in great contrast with contemporary English, and so, following Swift’s call, many of them sought to improve the written vernacular language. Somewhere, either in the past or the future, lay the perfect form of the English language.

In contrast to the second half of the seventeenth century, there were few references to the language of the ordinary people in the writings of the eighteenth century ‘grammarians’. Anselm Bayly wrote in 1772 that it was beneath a grammarian’s attempt to study colloquial English dialects. Neither were writers whom they admired necessarily taken as models of good English. Authors’ writings were subjected to detailed scrutiny for supposed errors. Grammarians sometimes spoke of the Genius of the Language or the Idiom of the Tongue as a criterion for judgement, the word ‘genius’ meaning sometimes ‘character’ or ‘spirit’, sometimes simply ‘grammar’. However, in practice, this latter concept meant no more than the intuition of the grammarian: what he felt sounded right, expressed in the Latin term Ipse dixit (he himself says). Sometimes this reliance on personal opinion was clearly stated, as in the following extract from Robert Baker’s 1770 Reflections on the English Language:

It will be easily discovered that I have paid no regard to authority. I have censured even our best penmen, where they have departed from what I conceive to be the idiom of the tongue, or where I have thought they violate grammar without necessity. To judge by the rule of ‘Ipse dixit’ is the way to perpetuate error…

… even by Swift, Temple, Addison and other writers of the highest reputation; some of them, indeed, with such a shameful impropriety as one must think must shock every English ear, and almost induce the reader to suppose the writers to be foreigners.

Their ‘crime’ was apparently the misuse of prepositions! Baker condemned Ipse dixit as used by these ‘best penmen’, but not when applied to himself. Appeals were often made to ‘Reason’ or ‘Analogy’, but grammarians were not always consistent in their arguments. They recognised that the evidence for the vocabulary and grammar of the language must be derived from what people actually wrote and spoke, which they sometimes referred to as ‘custom’. The one eighteenth century grammar book which had a particular influence on later grammars published for use in schools was Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. Lowth’s attitude was ‘prescriptive’ – that is that he laid down what he considered to be correct usage, as illustrated by the following extract from his book:

Grammar is the Art of rightly expressing our thoughts by words, etc. … The principal design of a Grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language, and to be able to judge every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not, etc …

The words ‘propriety’ and ‘rightly’ are important here because Lowth was not describing the language in its many varieties, but prescribing what ought to be written in a standard variety of English, and pointing out the ‘errors’ and ‘solecisms’ with examples from authors like Milton, Dryden and Pope. He described other varieties of usage only in order to condemn them. The following text, given in facsimile, is an extract from the preface to his work, typifies this particular attitude to language use. What people actually say or write, even though they may be socially of the same background, the ‘highest rank’ of eminent authors, is subject to Lowth’s prescriptive judgement. The second text below is an example of Lowth’s prescriptive method as stated in his book, in which he is stating the use of ‘will’ and ‘shall’, together with a short extract from his preface:

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Lowth’s book was intended for those who were already well-educated, as can be inferred from his preface in which he stated that… Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction which we pass thro’ in our childhood… His use of the first person plural implies that his readers, like him, would have studied Latin and Greek – the ancient… learned languages – at grammar school. This, however, did not provide them with knowledge of English grammar, even though they lived in a polite society and read English literature, an activity not followed by most of the population at that time. Lowth’s style of writing, like that of the other grammarians, was very ‘formal’; its vocabulary and structure were unlike that of everyday language. Below are two short contrasting examples of eighteenth century writing, the first from Thomas Hearne’s diary, Remarks and Collections (1715), and so in an informal prose style, and the second from a literary journal, The Rambler, written by Samuel Johnson in July, 1550. Literary prose adopted its own fashionable choices from the language at different periods, while ‘ordinary’ prose, in both speech and writing, continued generally unremarked upon:

MAY 28 (Sat.) This being the Duke of Brunswick, commonly called King George’s Birth-day, some of the bells were jambled in Oxford, by the care of some of the Whiggish, Fanatical Crew; but as I did not observe the Day in the least my self, so it was little taken notice of (unless by way of ridicule) by other honest People, who are for K. James IIId. Who is undoubted King of these Kingdoms,… ’tis heartily wish’d by them that he may be restored. (Thomas Hearne)

The advantages of mediocrity

Health and vigour, and a happy constitution of the corporeal frame, are of absolute necessity to the enjoyment of the comforts, and to the performance of the duties of life, and requisite in yet a greater measure to the accomplishment of any thing illustrious or distinguished; yet even these, if we can judge by their apparent consequences, are sometimes not very beneficial to those on whom they are most liberally bestowed…

The standard language recognised by the eighteenth century grammarians was that variety used by what Swift called the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation – polite in the sense of polished, refined, elegant, well-bred. By definition, the depraved language of the common people was, in every sense, viewed as inferior. George Campbell expressed this with great clarity when he wrote in his Philosophy of Rhetoric that:

No absolute monarch hath it more in his power to nobilitate a person of obscure birth than it is in the power of good use to ennoble words of low or dubious extraction; such, for instance, as have either arisen, nobody knows how, like ‘fib’, ‘banter’, ‘bigot’, ‘fop’, ‘flippant’ among the rabble, or ‘flimsy’, sprung from the cant of the manufacturers …


Samuel Johnson (above) was equally dismissive of common speech in the Preface to his Dictionary of 1755:

Nor are all words which are not found in the vocabulary, to be lamented as omissions. Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in great measure casual and mutable; many of their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and though current at certain times and places, are in others utterly unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.

These comments clearly show that the divisions in eighteenth century society were marked as much by language as by birth, rank, wealth and education. If the language of the common people was regarded as inferior by the educated upper classes, so too were their ideas and thoughts equally devalued. Language was regarded as ‘the dress of thought’ or, using another common metaphor, ‘the mirror of thought’. It was believed that there was a direct correlation between good language and good thinking. On the one hand was the dominant social class, the Gentry, whose language and way of life were variously described as polite, civilised, elegant, noble, refined, tasteful and pure. On the other hand were the laborious and mercantile part of the people, shopkeepers and hackney-coachmen, the rabble, whose language was vulgar, barbarous, contemptible, low, degenerate, profane, mean, abject and depraved.

This view was reinforced by a theory of language that was called Universal Grammar, the belief in a direct connection between language and the mind, or soul, and in the superior value of abstract thought over the senses. For students of language today, the differences between Standard English and regional dialects are viewed as linguistically superficial and unimportant. The same meanings can be conveyed as easily in one as in the other, although we cannot, in everyday life, ignore the social connotations of regional and non-standard speech, which are still very powerful in conveying and maintaining attitudes. However, in the eighteenth century, the linguistic differences between refined and common speech were held to match fundamental differences in both intellect and morality. The gulf between the two was reinforced by the fact that education was in the learned languages, Latin and Greek. The classical Greek language and literature were judged to be the most ‘perfect’.

As it was believed that the contrasts between the refined language of the classically educated class and the vulgar language of the common people mirrored equal differences in intellectual capabilities, and also in virtue and morality, such beliefs had social and political consequences. These can be demonstrated by the fact that, during the long years of warfare with France (1793-1815), there was marked political oppression of popular movements for reform, and ideas about language were used to protect the government from criticism. For example, the notion of vulgarity of language was used to dismiss a series of petitions before Parliament calling for reform of the voting system. If the language of the labouring classes was, by definition, inferior, incapable of expressing coherent thought and of dubious moral value, then it was impossible for them to use language properly in order to argue their own case:

Liberty of speech and freedom of discussion in this House form an essential part of the constitution; but it is necessary that persons coming forward as petitioners, should address the House in decent and respectful language.

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 779)

The following extract from a 1793 Petition to Parliament from Sheffield shows that while the spelling and grammar were perfectly correct, the Members of Parliament may have considered its style and tone as indecent and disrespectful:

Your petitioners are lovers of peace, of liberty, and justice. They are in general tradesmen and artificers, unpossessed of freehold land, and consequently have no voice in choosing members to sit in parliament; – but though they may not be freeholders, they are men, and do not think themselves fairly used in being excluded the rights of citizens…

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 776)

To the modern reader, this would appear to be not only accurate but also appropriate in its use of English. Indeed, one contemporary commented that he suspected that the objection to the roughness of the language was not the real cause why this Petition was opposed. To gain an idea of the relative ’roughness’ of working-class language from the time, we should contrast the above with the following anonymous protest letter against the closure of common land, from the Combin’d Parish of Cheshunt… to Oliver Cromwell Esquire (the pseudonym for their local landlord)… 27 February 1799. It uses non-standard spelling, punctuation and grammar, which would have provided Parliament with an excuse for its dismissal, had it come before them.

We right these lines to you… in the Defence of our Parrish rights which you unlawfully are about to disinherit us of… Resolutions is maid of by the aforesaid Combind that if you intend of inclosing Our Commond Commond fields Lammas Meads Marches &c Whe Resolve before that bloudy and unlawful act is finished to have your hearts bloud if you proceede in the aforesaid bloudy act Whe like horse leaches will cry give, give until whe have split the bloud of every one that wishes to rob the Inosent unborn. It shall not be in your power to to say I am safe from the hands of my Enemy for Whe like birds of pray will prively lie in wait to spil the abode are as putrified sores in our Nostrils. Whe declair that thou shall not say I am safe when thou goest to thy bed for beware that thou liftest not thine eyes up in the most mist of flames…

(Quoted in E. P. Thompson (1963), The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 240.)

It sets the tone for the letters of the later Luddite, Swing and Rebecca rioters. At the same time, writers such as Tom Paine, in his The Rights of Man (1792) and The Age of Reason (1794) and William Cobbett (1763-1835), were able to demonstrate that men of humble origins could also argue effectively in Standard English. From 1785 to 1791, Cobbett, a farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, served in a regiment of foot in Canada, leaving the army when he failed to bring some officers to trial for embezzlement. Although receiving an elementary education as a young man, he had little knowledge of ’grammar’. However, his ability to write in a fair hand procured him the role of ’copyist’ to the regimental Colonel and commandant of the garrison:

Being totally ignorant of the rules of grammar, I necessarily made many mistakes in copying, because no one can copy letter by letter, nor even word by word. The colonel saw my deficiency, and strongly recommended study… with a promise of reward in case of success.

I procured me a Lowth’s grammar, and applied myself to the study of it with unceasing assiduity, and not without some profit: for, though it was a considerable time before I fully comprehended all that I read, still I read and studied with such unremitted study that, at last, I could write without falling into any gross errors. The pains I took cannot be described: I wrote the whole grammar out two or threetimes; I got it by heart; I repeated it every morning and every evening, and… I imposed on myself the task of saying it all over once every time I was posted sentinel. To this exercise of my memory I ascribe the retentiveness of which I have since found it capable, and to the success with which it was attended… that has led to the acquirement of that little learning of which I am the master.

(The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, 1796)

Cobbett was convinced that without this ability to master standard grammar, no young man of humble origins could ever hope to aspire to anything beyond mere trade or agriculture. Without grammatical knowledge, it was impossible to learn to write properly, and the ability to speak correctly would be a matter of chance. All well-informed persons, he wrote, would judge a man’s mind according to the correctness of his speaking and writing, at least until they had other means of judging. He followed up his conviction in this by writing a grammar book which took the form of a number of letters addressed to his son.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. 

Basingstoke: Macmillan. 

Harvest Home Revisited – How did it become a Church festival?   Leave a comment


Above: Old methods still in use in Warwickshire (near Coventry) in 1933

This weekend, churches everywhere are celebrating the Harvest  – but strange as it may seem, the Harvest Festival as we know it is a tradition that’s less than two hundred years old, and was invented by a local vicar in the tiny (but beautiful) North Cornish Parish of Morwenstow.

Mechanisation has undoubtedly taken most of the romance out of the harvest season, but it was not so long ago that the last loaded wagons drawn by a team of horses, with garlands, ribbons and flowers, rolled back to the farm to begin the Harvest Home, with good food, dancing, singing and general merriment. As the last wagon rolled to a halt a young reaper would shout:

We have ploughed, we have sowed,

We have reaped, we have mowed,

We have brought home every load,

Hip Hip Hip – Harvest Home!

Then the cakes and beer came out and – on with the dance. For this evening, master, rector and labourer sat down with no distinction between them, and there would be visitors from other farms, since the farmers pooled their labour at this time. Much of this disappeared with the replacement of the horse by the tractor, yet such is the sense of heritage and tradition that Harvest Home continues to be linked with Harvest Thanksgiving in parish churches throughout England and Wales.

The Church had for hundreds of years taken an interest in the Harvest customs. A peal of bells from the tower would greet the harvest, wheat and other produce had been blessed in the church and even the corn dolly was allowed to grace the church door, although it was soon transformed into a cross. The Sixteenth Century Reformation discouraged this, but in 1843 the vicar of Morwenstow issued a notice inviting parishioners to receive the Sacrament in bread of the new corn. This morning’s Harvest Thanksgiving service broadcast on BBC Radio Four came from Wallingford in rural south Oxfordshire, and recalled this event:


The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was a somewhat eccentric man. He was not what you might call a conventional priest, refusing to wear clerical black, instead wearing a purple three-quarter length coat, and underneath the coat a thick fisherman’s jersey, to show people that, like Jesus, he was a ‘fisher of men’. On top of this he wore long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and apparently kept a pig as a pet.

Hawker became famous for giving Christian burials to shipwrecked mariners washed up on the shores of the parish, and was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck.

In 1843 he began a tradition which lives to this day. One September day, he nailed up, in the church porch, an open invitation to his parishioners…

“Let us gather together in the chancel of our church…and there receive in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.” 

A few days later, on 1st October, the first Harvest festival took place, during which bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion. From these humble beginnings, Harvest festivals are now celebrated in churches throughout the world.

For many years, Thanksgiving became an ‘Evensong’ service in parish churches, but the was suitably decorated all day long with all God’s gifts around us, as the popular hymn, We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land… has it. The Harvest Festival is still one of the best-attended services in churches of all denominations throughout Britain, especially popular with children and families, with the ‘gifts’ presented and displayed often then given to local charities. In recent decades, the other ‘harvests’ of the sea, mining and manufacturing have also been recognised, especially in coastal and urban districts.


Posted October 4, 2015 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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