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OLIVIA SMITH is an American scholar whose ideas about language were prompted by the effects of the Black and women's movements in the United States. As the balance of power shifted, Black-American began to be understood as a language with its own grammar and syntax, instead of being regarded as sub-standard and incorrect.

Applying this experience to language in England during three troubled decades, she discovered a massive argument about English which reverberates to this day. Smith's spirited study drew a lot of attention and influenced critics and researchers. They understood that only those critics who feel passionately about the history of the English language can have a vision of its hurtling creativity, its chariot of fire. As the psalmist, or more properly his translator, puts it:

"When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.

The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back."

The language we write and speak has an atavistic memory of the grip which that "strange language", Norman French, used to have on it. The Normans tried to crush it, but English fought its way out of internal exile. Like an echo of the big bang on the far fringes of the universe, that victory is still present in the language we use now. There is a libertarian exultation in the very sinews of English which rejoices in its early success and which is always trying to escape from experts who want to make it respectable.

Samuel Johnson famously toasted the next insurrection of black slaves in the West Indies, but he was no liberator. He forced the language so successfully into a straitjacket that the culture has yet to shake it off.The influence of this much mythologised, often endearing Tory anarchist still broods over us. Gloomy, vulnerable, bullying, anxious and authoritarian, he successfully froze the active energies of the language and forced it to sound like a translation from Latin. Monotonous, singsong, full of polysyllabic phrases and obvious balances, he writes a kind of rhyming prose which sounds boring and phoney. Like a man holding his breath to stop himself from boking, his style has a heavy, almost velvety conservative gloom which hangs over those polished periods like the atmosphere in some neoclassical mausoleum.

In the extract Smith criticises, Johnson means by "illiterate" those writers who're ignorant of Latin and Greek. Though he was an epic conver- sationalist - great crack altogether - he wants to repress the vernacular and fix the language forever as a second-rate version of Latin. He wants it to be eternally toasting a king over the water and never to recover its native confidence. Out upon it sir, as conversational Johnson would most uncivilly interrupt, you're talking like a damned Whig. But as Jasper was telling McMoon only the other day, now that the inglorious union is fading, it's about time that criticism took an Orange tinge.

Recently, Johnson has become popular among literary theorists, really because his Tory scepticism and contradictions suit a critical approach which stresses indeterminacy and the way texts "turn against themselves". Olivia Smith's study is passionately different from this cosy sinking feeling of nothing really mattering much. She examines how a series of neglected figures like John Fell and John Horne Tooke associated spoken English with liberty and used the speed or "despatch" of speech to challenge the cumbersome, hierarchical view of the language Johnson encouraged. Like the children of Israel they seek to break out of his "intolerable" Latinity, as that gritty lexicographer Noah Webster called it. William Cobbett protested against the "passive obedience" inculcated by the rules of grammar in popular textbooks, and he published his own grammar book to affirm the values of what Smith terms "an intellectual vernacular".

Who remembers Cobbett's grammar now? Like almost all his works, it's out of print and can only be found in cheap Victorian editions in secondhand shops. Can Britain ever become, in the Australian poet Les Murray's phrase, a "verna-cular republic"? How do we free up our prose and make it sassier, wilder, more direct and fluid?

These are tricky questions, but they point to the inescapable fact that critical prose must carry a memory of the battles fought in previous generations and beware of the nets that are cast for it - in Britain it's the net of class and deference, coupled with a forgetfulness about the languages English has suppressed, which entangles so many writers. So the critic has to try get near the raw edge of the language and stay with it. Which means that critical prose must follow Cromwell and choose the free way, not the formal.

Bring me my bow of burning gold - bring me my arrows of desire.

Next week: Familiarity

As by the cultivation of various sciences, a language is amplified, it will be more furnished with words deflected from original sense; the geometrician will talk of a courtier's zenith, or the excentrick virtue of a wild hero, and the physician of sanguine expectations and phlegmatick delays. ... The tropes of poetry will make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current sense; pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will ... by publick infatuation rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety.

Samuel Johnson:

`Preface to The Dictionary' (1755)

The political nature of Johnson's remark is evident in his choice of words which by their resonance associate an ignorance of the classical languages with sexual immorality and the breaking down of class division: "public infatuation", "colloquial licentiousness", and "confound distinction". As the compiler of the Dictionary, founder of literary criticism, and author of a prose style that was avidly read and imitated, Johnson was a uniquely important populariser of ideas which emphasised the distinction between refined and vulgar English. His rhetorical sweep brought vividness and range to concepts which might otherwise have had neither. No other writer concerned with language ... had such an extensive and tenacious appeal...

Olivia Smith:

`The Politics of Language' (1984)