Paula Blank. Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings. London: Routledge, 1996. viii+211pp. ISBN 0 415 13779 9 Cloth.
Swen Voekel
University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

Voekel, Swen. "Review of
Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 9.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_voe2.html>.

  1. In his recent book Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity, Willy Maley argues that "Spenser’s texts were produced within the context of a peculiar colonial struggle in Ireland between, not just two English communities, but two concepts of Englishness, two kinds of English culture," and that "this conflict has to be viewed within a wider British context, in relation to what historians have come to call the ‘British Problem.’" This focus on concepts or varieties of Englishness has recently become one of the the central concerns of both literary critics and historians, who have come to question the idea of a monolithic and insular English national identity in the early modern period. In his monumental Forms of Nationhood, Richard Helgerson revealed the faultlines that separated the versions of Englishness presented by a host of major late-Elizabethan English writers, and the tensions inherent in the period which saw both the rise of a territorial, monarchical state and of the authorial self. In Broken English, Paula Blank addresses these concerns with metropolitan identity ("the Elizabethan writing of England"), within the context of English writers’ newly emerging focus on (and representations of) the linguistic peripheries of the Tudor and Stuart kingdoms.

  2. As Maley makes clear, the forging of an English (and, in the late-Elizabethan and Stuart period, British) identity has as much to do with the peripheries of the Tudor polity as with its center; while he focuses on Ireland, Blank’s book takes us on a literary tour of the "dark corners" of England, and the wider Atlantic Archipelago, as seen by such canonical figures of English literature as Spenser, Shakespeare, Nashe, and Jonson. Present too are a whole host of early modern lexicographers, orthographers and writers of treatises on poetics and the vernacular such as Alexander Gill, Samuel Daniel, Richard Mulcaster and George Puttenham. As Blank makes clear early on, hers is not a philological or historical investigation of English dialects, but rather of their representation in the works of these metropolitan writers; the focus is not on the rise of English in the context of the eclipse of Latin or in relation to other national vernaculars, but rather on "the Renaissance discovery, and elucidation, of differences within the national vernacular" (1). Even in her chapter on "Language, Laws, and Blood: The King’s English and His Empire" (in which the focus is on Wales, Ireland and Scotland), Blank concentrates on the "ways that Renaissance English writers incorporate the speech of the Welsh, the Irish, and the Scottish into the province of English letters" (128; my emphasis); there is little in this chapter on either the development of the English language in these regions, or on the Welsh and Gaelic vernaculars of the majority of the inhabitants (even considered in relation to English language and culture). As she notes, "my concern . . . is not with ‘real’ dialects. . . . The ‘broken English’ of my title refers only to the written language, to literary dialects" (2).

  3. This framework is, in part, dictated by the period itself: "In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England, there was no such thing as dialect literature so understood" (3). Sandwiched between the medieval writer who wrote in the language of his birthplace (for lack of a standard, elite and / or literary national vernacular) and the later, bilingual dialect author such as Robert Burns ("who may choose to write in their native dialects if it suits their interests, which may be aesthetic, or ideological" [3]), the early modern poet or playwright can be seen to be "testing the bounds of what Spenser referred to as ‘a kingdom of our own language’ -- not only among the local shires, but among the nations that fell within England’s imperial sphere" (128). Indeed, this testing of the bounds went beyond the geographical: included among the provincial dialects (northern and southern English, Welsh English, etc.), and interacting with them, are the "dialects" of vagabonds (or "cant," explored in a chapter on "The Thieves of Language") and the man of letters (neologisms and "inkhorn" language, archaisms). As Blank repeatedly notes, "Renaissance authors, in effect, create social dialects to articulate the lines of social class" (43); even when representing provincial speech, the emphasis is on the cultural values ascribed to that speech (normally in relation to the King’s English of London, the court and / or the poet) and not the evocation of a particular region of England, or of Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Thus "although aristocrats as prominent as Sir Walter Ralegh were said to have spoken with a broad Devonshire accent . . . literary southern English was reserved for the exclusive use of ‘clownish’ characters" (80) while northern English was "at once the rude dialect of ploughmen and an ancestral English, . . . prosecuted as provincial and defended as the wellspring of the national language" (108).

  4. The representation (or production: "social dialects are not so much represented by early modern authors, as they are produced by them" [38]) of provincial and social dialect says more about the poet, and Renaissance poetics, than about regional speech or "real" social groups; indeed, it often tells us more about the poet’s (and the literary elite’s) ideas of decorum, social class and social mobility than about those who purportedly spoke the dialect. Thus, according to Blank, Spenser’s unprecedented use of northern dialect in The Shepheardes Calender has little to do with northern England, and more to do with the poet’s self-presentation "as an untried poet at the height of his literary powers, as a ‘northern’ poet deserving of southern fame" (124). As Blank shows, the sometimes fierce competition to authorize a national vernacular was also one in which Renaissance authors sought to authorize themselves through a "discriminating" use of dialect: "Renaissance writers invented the difference of English -- not only by giving form to its dialects, but by systematically endowing those forms with cultural value and meaning. . . . Demarcating the boundaries between dialects, discriminating the ‘difference of English,’ was enough to confer linguistic authority on writers who claimed to be in a position to judge" (168). The rise of the Author is here related to a process in which, by appropriating and even creating social and regional dialects, English writers carved out a literary space for themselves, a space distinguished from both "the people," from other writers, and often from the Court and aristocratic patron.

  5. Blank’s focus on the representation or appropriation of language often leads to a lack of socio-historical analysis of the "reality" behind those representations; there is, for example, little discussion of why London and the court came to define standard English (which might include a discussion of the development of a national economy, of centralized governmental and legal institutions, of an urban literary "public sphere," etc.), or how the reality of vagabondage (changes in the poor laws, a growing rift between popular and elite culture, increasing economic disparity between rich and poor) was reflected in representations of "cant." In the sections on Wales and Ireland, the lack of historical contextualization, and the reliance on a narrow range of modernized and abridged source material (the Irish section depends almost entirely on Myers’s Elizabethan Ireland: A Selection of Writings by Elizabethan Writers on Ireland) leads to some over-generalization. However, given the amount of ground Blank covers, the genuinely original insights into major canonical texts such as Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender or Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the wealth of apt citations from Renaissance orthographers, lexicographers and writers of treatises on poetic diction and the vernacular, these are relatively minor flaws; the book will be of interest to a wide range of readers, especially those interested in issues of linguistic nationalism, the "rise of the author," the representation of marginalised groups, or the history of the English language (and especially of the construction of a hegemonic standard English constructed through representations of alternative Englishes) more generally.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 30 March 1998)