Manners of speaking : linguistic capital and the rhetoric of correctness in late-nineteenth-century America
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A number of arguments appeared in the late-nineteenth-century United States about “correctness” in language, arguments for and against enforcing a standard of correctness and arguments about what should count as correct in language. Insofar as knowledge about and facility with “correct” linguistic usage could affect one’s standing in the social structure, such knowledge and facility functioned as a form of capital—linguistic capital. This dissertation considers treatments of linguistic capital in a variety of contexts, including verbal criticism, linguistics, composition pedagogy, and novels. The subject of Chapter 1 is verbal criticism, popular writings that quibble over the “correct” meanings of words. Verbal critics’ goals and conclusions, however, were often full of contradictions. My first chapter offers an explanation for these contradictions based on their resonance within late-nineteenth-century capitalism’s social structure. Chapter 2 centers around William Dwight Whitney‘s efforts to establish what he called the “science of language” in America. Whitney’s potentially progressive principles sometimes appear conservative, capable of rationalizing a laissez-faire politics with regard to language and class—a politics this chapter considers in relation to Whitney’s attempt to craft an ethos for the discipline of linguistics. My third chapter examines the dominant composition pedagogy of this period, current-traditional rhetoric, at a time when universities increasingly admitted middle-class students. Chapter 3 considers what types of cultural capital current-traditional pedagogy assumed its students possessed and what effects its assumptions imply. Chapter 4 focuses on William Dean Howells, whose realist novels represented the language of various characters as precisely as possible in an effort to encourage readers to accept speakers of non-prestige dialects. This chapter explores the possibilities and the limits of Howells’s efforts, and what those possibilities and limits imply for any progressive language policy. The Conclusion analyzes the most famous attempt by a professional organization to adopt such a progressive language policy, the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” Deliberation over this policy deeply divided teachers in the language arts. My conclusion considers why both sides may be right—and wrong—to think their preferred means can achieve what turns out to be an agreed-upon end.