To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: “for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?”
We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as “king of the sciences.” Turner’s study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: “The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language.” In the beginning was the word.
The conflation of those two models of the “standard language,” Baldwin’s and Bush’s, was evident everywhere. You could see it, for example, in the wording of a bill introduced into the Virginia General Assembly that would change the currently designated official language of the state from “English” to “standard English,” a variety defined as follows:
Standard English includes the written and spoken language which is accepted by generally recognized authorities as grammatically correct in the United States and shall not include any dialect, patois, or jargon based on the English language.
You might wonder how the authors of the bill can be so confident that their own spoken English would pass grammatical muster with those “generally recognized authorities,” whoever they might be (William Safire, call your office).