'To make a new tongue': natural and manufactured language in the late fiction of William Morris

Abberley, Will (2012) 'To make a new tongue': natural and manufactured language in the late fiction of William Morris. Journal of Victorian Culture, 17 (4). pp. 397-412. ISSN 1355-5502

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The paper considers William Morris's belief that modern language was ‘degraded’, and explores how his late fiction tried to resist this degradation. Morris was influenced by the romantic philology of the mid-Victorian period which depicted languages as living organisms. Philologists such as Max Müller claimed that modern civilization had arrested this growth, mechanizing language into conventional signs; and Morris adapted the idea into a critique of industrial capitalism. He conceptualized modern English as manufactured external forms, sundered from organic history. His late prose fictions trace the ‘natural’ meanings of words which he imagined feudalism and capitalism had suppressed. However, this narrative of organic origins existed in tension with Morris's socialist ideals, which sought an objective language above local or national perspectives. The older Morris was writing at a time when romantic philology was coming under attack from a new generation of scholars. These proto-linguists regarded meaning as conventional and narratives of organic ‘roots’ in the distant past as mere mythology. Morris's struggles to reconcile the contradictions in his philosophy of language reflect wider tensions in romantic philology. His imaginary worlds in which everyone spoke the same relied upon myths of original linguistic unity and stasis which new research and theories were undermining. Ironically, Morris's attempts to re-organicize English inadvertently demonstrated the conventionality and perspectivism of language, relying upon common cultural frames of reference.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Depositing User: Will Abberley
Date Deposited: 11 Sep 2015 11:48
Last Modified: 11 Sep 2015 11:48
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/56641
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