The Language of Liberty: Milton’s Nationalistic Linguistics
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English as Lingua Franca, or ELF, seems a straightforward concept: in today’s globalized society, speakers of all varieties of languages elect to use English as a means of communication, regardless of their native tongues. The origins of ELF lie in the era of aggressive British and American imperialism, when English was forced on much of the world as a language of governance. At that time, native speakers held considerable power over non-native speakers; “proper” English was a marker of civilization as defined by the colonizer and entrance into positions of power depended on mastering it (frequently at the expense of one’s native language). Given the ubiquity of English as the modern lingua franca and its imperialistic past as something of a bully language, it can come as a bit of a shock to shift one’s linguistic paradigm back a few centuries to the English Renaissance, when English was struggling to prove itself to the more prestigious French, Italian, and then-lingua franca, Latin. In England, various scholars tried to enhance their mother language’s reputation, largely by making it more like Latin in its vocabulary and syntax. But these attempts were always in tension with a nationalism that asserted that English was fine just the way it was and should be recognized for its own merits as a language of the common people, not of scholars. One man who skillfully navigated these two opposing forces and largely succeeded in reconciling them was John Milton, one of England’s greatest poets and propagandists. His career was equal parts building up the English language, defending the English people, and encouraging both to match and then surpass the linguistic might of the Continent. Through his political prose and his poetry, both in English and Latin, Milton sought to prove that England could deftly wield language to assert its dominance in political, religious, and (the highest laurels for Milton) literary spheres.
Lucerna. Volume 10: p.39-48