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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 424-427

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The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing by Janet Sorensen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 318. $60.00 cloth.

How does language work as an instrument of imperial power? Imposing a standard language installs that power in the individual consciousness, fusing personal with national identity in the matrix of imperial culture. This process, [End Page 424] however, is by no means linear, predictable, or irresistible. Janet Sorensen studies its Scottish ramifications during the period when Johnson's Dictionary set out to standardize English in England. As readers of Johnson's Plan and Preface know, the nationalist implications of the dictionary project are not far to seek. Johnson's jingoist joke that one Englishman ought to be able to do in three years what took forty French academicians forty years playfully alludes to the Dictionary's quite serious implications for national cultural prestige. Though her study is devoted mainly to Scottish writers, educators and grammarians, Sorensen astutely chooses to include a chapter on Johnson, as well as a thought-provoking epilogue on "Jane Austen's language and the strangeness at home in the center." Canonical metropolitan texts, as well as those by "peripheral" Scots, trouble the ideological intersection between language and nation. Johnson's Dictionary, she argues, "alienated English from its contemporary speakers in ways not dissimilar to colonial language practices" (63). The influential standard English of Johnson and Austen was also produced by and productive of emerging constructs of nation and empire.

Sorensen analyzes what she sees as the dialectical relationship between the imposition of standardized English on marginal populations such as the Scots, who struggled with this more or less alien language, and the parallel creation of a Scotish cultural identity centered around the Gaelic language. Beginning well before mid-century with efforts to spread English literacy in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands, spearheaded by the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), her investigation concludes with the publication by Samuel Johnson's protegé, William Shaw, of the first Scots Gaelic grammer in English (1778). Along with these politically motivated linguistic developments, Sorensen traces two very different ways of understanding language and the "simultaneous and mutually determining movements" (222) between them. The first is "universal grammar," the Enlightenment belief that the deep structure of language is uniform across languages. This view goes along with beliefs in a one-to-one equivalency between words or ideas across different languages and, more fundamentally, in the transparency of language with respect to things themselves—concepts that arose at least partly, Sorensen points out, in the context of imperial relationships to foreign languages. The other view is of each national language as radically particular, historically produced as a tradition arising over time, and untranslatable, as well as being central to cultural definitions of nationhood: what she calls a "cultural nationalist" model. The book sets out "to explore the claims that colonial and national discourses make about these conceptions of language within a particular historical location"—eighteenth-century Scotland—"and to critique them in that context" (16, italics in original). At least in the Scottish context, Sorensen asserts, these two models of language dialectically produce one another. [End Page 425]

The Grammar of Empire advances two basic claims about colonial identity and language. The first, broadly accepted by now (and also found in various forms in recent work from Anne McClintock and Simon Gikandi to Katie Trumpener and Robert Crawford), is that colonial or "peripheral" culture does indeed influence imperial identity. The second, more specific assertion—persuasively supported in the course of Sorensen's study—is that national linguistic identities emerge out of, rather than predate, imperial relationships. In other words, the myth of a national language rooted in the misty depths of time is just that. A unified Gaelic language, for example, emerged from the campaign by England (aided by influential, upwardly mobile Lowland Scots) to teach the Highlanders English, which turned out to involve first making them literate in their own language. This in turn entailed reifying Gaelic, turning it...


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