4.1 A General Survey

Language, being a social practice, changes with social conditions. In the move from feudal society to capitalist society there was a growing tendency towards economic, political, and cultural unification, that is, the creation of a unified home market. Corresponding to this was a move towards a system of unified communication, that is, towards an increasingly standardised language (Fairclough 1989: 56-7).

Leith, in his study of the social history of English, makes a similar observation: ‘A standard tends to emerge when ideas about nationhood and political autonomy are gaining currency’ (1983: 39). He is precise about the origins of the standard variety of English. According to him they lie with ‘the merchant class based in London. The dialect they spoke was the east midland one…and already in the fourteenth century this was a class dialect within London’ (p.38).

As one dialect began to emerge as the dominant it immediately acquired prestige. From the earliest comments on the spoken standard (Hart 1551, Price 1665, Coles 1674) there are references to prestige – Hart’s ‘learned’ and ‘literate’ elements. Puttenham (1589) observed that the ‘best’ speech could be heard at Court and within a sixty mile radius of London. Speech in the countryside elsewhere, however, was considered ‘barbarous’ (Coote 1597). Leith, from whom all these references are taken, comments, ‘What we can be sure of is that the prestige of one dialect triggers the disparagement of others’ (p.43).

A written standard was also taking shape in this process with regional dialects increasingly losing their written form. This was greatly helped and accelerated with the use of the printing press at the end of the fifteenth century. During the course of the sixteenth century a growing sense of a literary norm made possible attempts to represent foreigner and regional speech. Leith traces this feature from then right up to the present:

Increasingly they [foreigners and provincials] play the role of buffoon or boor. Non-standard speech is equated with simplicity or roughness; and in order to depict these qualities in literature, some form of marking for non-standard features is adopted. A tradition is established that has lasted to the present day, and which has been translated into cinema and TV soap opera; deviation from the norm implies social comment in the minds of author and audience alike.

(This is of great interest for the purposes of this dissertation as it points up the significance of Chico as an outsider – and thus someone ordinarily less powerful – in everything he says.) That these concepts of prestige and disparagement are based on attitudes located in the social hierarchy of power relations rather than in any universal aesthetic judgement has been demonstrated in a number of studies. Edwards (1979) cites two by Giles et al (1974 and 1975) which produced very similar results. The citation of one suffices here. In the 1974 study forty-six British undergraduates who had no experience of Greek were asked to listen to two Greek dialects, the Athenian (prestige, standard) and the Cretan (low status). No significant difference was highlighted by the students. Trudgill’s 1974 study of the postvocalic ‘r’ is even more telling, showing that in British English its absence is associated with high prestige, whereas in New York English the reverse is true. (All studies cited in Edwards pp. 80-1.). Halliday (1964) also recognised the role of social factors in such evaluations and likened the disparagement of language varieties to racism (p.165). While such egalitarian attitudes and findings indicate the intensity of the struggle for power in language they do not prevent the standard from dominating to such a degree that those people who have noticeable regional or social accents regard their own spoken language as somehow defective or improper (Kress 1979:47). This view has been strengthened as the written form has over time become valued as higher than the spoken form and is valued as such even by those whose main or only use of language is spoken (Kress p.53). However, as one of the goals of a standard is maximal variation of function it cannot be monolithic and inflexible. Leith again:

since the standard has to be omnifunctional, it will develop new structures and new meanings appropriate to its use in different domains. Each group of specialists – lawyers, the writers of religious texts, administrators, and later, journalists and advertisers – cultivate their own varieties of the standard; and each new recruit to those professions must learn to write it, and often speak it too…it has to develop variations to suit its wide range of functions.

This ‘wide range of functions’ is what Fairclough would call ‘orders of discourse’(p.17) and this leads on now to a discussion of ‘naturalisation’ and common sense.

Within institutions/social orders there are various discourse types e.g. within education there is the lesson, school assembly, the changing room in a sports lesson, or, at a higher level, the lecture, the seminar, the tutorial, the college bar etc. Over time in all social orders certain forms within each discourse type will dominate others to their eventual exclusion and will come to be seen as ‘natural’ and not arbitrary i.e. not one of many other possibilities. Thus the dominant ideology of each order, feeding through the dominant discourse types ‘naturally’, will appear as merely ‘common sense’ and ‘neutral’, that is, will be invisible as ideology. To learn the contents, subject positions and relations of these discourse types will, then, seem to be merely a question of learning the necessary skills to operate within a given institution or social order, with nothing ideological about it whatsoever. Fairclough calls this invisibility of ideology the effect of power (p.29), and notes how it assists in the uncritical reproduction of the dominant ideology.

A parallel process of naturalisation occurred in the standardisation of the language. A crucial part of the dominance of the south-east dialect and the subordination of the other dialects was the codification of the standard and this went hand-in-hand with prescription (Fairclough p.57). Once dictionaries and grammars were printed there was an ‘objective’ linguistic authority to refer to, even though some of the forms found there may only have been considered standard because they happened to be the first set down in print, thus masking the struggle with alternate meanings of forms from other dialects or even within the same dialect as that of the compilers. In time the dictionary meanings came to assume a ‘natural’ position in the language. For many words this may not matter; it is difficult to imagine a conflict over the meaning of the word ‘table’. However, there are many words which refer to important complex concepts which change as the balance of ideological forces in society change and over which there are constant struggles in meaning. Consider, for example, such words as ideology (discussed by Fairclough pp. 93-94), democracv, justice, equality, or, as Edwards illuminatingly suggests, accent and dialect. In a discussion of the social and ideological background of dictionary compilation Edwards (p.79) gives the definition of these two words from what is perhaps the most prestigious dictionary of British English, the Oxford English Dictionary.

accent: ‘consist mainly in the prevailing quality of tone, or in a peculiar alteration of pitch,but may include mispronunciation of vowels and consonants, by misplacing of stress, and misinflection of a sentence.’
dialect: ‘one of the subordinate forms or varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities of vocabulary, pronunciation and idiom.’
(emphasis added)

Neither definition is ‘neutral’, ‘natural’, or ‘commonsensical’ but, rather, reflects the compilers’ views of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ in language. Their views are the power of the standard language in action. This is no light matter, for as Fairclough notes, ‘The naturalisation of meanings of words is an effective way of constraining the contents of discourse and, in the long term, knowledge and beliefs’ (p.105).

Another way in which common sense play an important role in maintaining and reproducing the status quo is its place in schemata (our knowledge of the world). Schemata play a vital role in the coherence of texts, for texts must not only have parts that fit together sequentially (as that merely ensures formal coherence) texts must also fit with the schemata of the receiver in order to ‘make sense’. This then begs the question concerning the origin of schemata, and the answer must be that our knowledge of the world comes from the culture and society we live in and it comes chiefly through language. And as the foregoing discussion on standardisation and naturalisation demonstrated (it is hoped), our language itself is not free and neutral but is shaped to a greater or lesser degree by the ideological forces of ‘common sense’ with all that that entails. Thus our interpretation of texts, written or spoken, is not a question of free will but is intrinsically tied in to the prevailing socio-cultural conditions.

The sociologist Garfinkel was also aware of the role of common sense in everyday life and how common assumptions and expectations can control the actions of people and their interpretations of the actions of others. To demonstrate this he set his students the task of reporting common conversations they had by writing on the left side of a sheet of paper what the participants actually said and on the right side what they and their partners understood they were talking about. An example of a conversation between one of the students and his wife is given in Figure 8 below. When Garfinkel requested further accuracy, clarity,and directness, students gave up with the complaint that the task was impossible (p. 317).

The discourse marked ‘Understood’ usefully illustrates the shared commonsense assumptions which underlie everyday spoken discourse and which allow us to converse economically. These conditions are what Hymes (1972) calls ‘the norms of interaction and interpretation’ and what
Searle (1969) refers to as ‘intelligible output’ and ‘hearer’s understanding’. They are also an essential part of Grice’s ‘Cooperative Principle’ (1975). Yet, as was shown above, such assumptions and expectations are also the invisible point of entry for the dominant ideology. In



Husband:  Dana succeeded in putting a penny in the parking meter without being picked up







Wife:    Did you take him to the record store?


This afternoon as I was bringing Dana, our four year old son, here from the nursery school, he succeeded in reaching high enough to put a penny in the parking meter when we parked in a meter zone, whereas before he had always had to be picked up to reach that high.


Since he put a penny in the meter that means that you stopped while he was with you. I know that you stopped at the record store either on the way to get him or on the way back. Was it on the way back, so that he was with you, or did you stop there on the way to get him and somewhere else on the way back?

Figure 8. The spoken and the understood in everyday conversation (Garfinkel 1972: 316)

Fairclough’s words, ‘such assumptions and expectations are implicit, backgrounded, taken for granted, not things that people are consciously aware of, rarely explicitly formulated or examined or questioned’ (p.77). This gives rise to conventional ways of interacting in which participants unquestioningly accept the relations, subject positions and contents of the dominant discourse type.
The above model assumes that all variables operate smoothly and that there is no opposition offered to the domination of ‘common sense’. This is, of course, not true. Fairclough cites three ways in which common sense assumptions are foregrounded: (a) when there is a breakdown and repair, (b) when there is a large social or cultural divide between participants, and (c) when there is ‘deliberate disturbance of common sense through some form of intervention in discourse’(p. 106). It is the last-mentioned method which the Marx Brothers seem to specialise in and to which this discussion now turns.