Benjamin Disraeli's comment in Sybil; or, the Two Nations (1845) that Britain consisted of ‘two nations … who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners’ is frequently cited as expressing a conscious awareness of the dichotomous structure of social class distinctions in Britain that would have been shared by his readers. One of the foundations on which such a dichotomous social structure was built was a language ideology which I shall call ‘the ideology of prescriptivism’ (cf. Watts 1999).
Mugglestone (1995) locates the beginning of prescriptivism in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but the role played by attitudes towards language in helping to create these social distinctions had already been realised explicitly with the emergence of a generally accepted written standard at the beginning of that century. In this chapter I shall argue that we can trace the ideology of prescriptivism back much further.
Mugglestone's principal argument is that one of the most salient ways of marking social distinctions symbolically was through the production and institutionalised reproduction of standard versus non-standard forms of talk. She locates the rise of ‘accent as social symbol’ in the latter half of the eighteenth century and deals with the ways in which it is socially reproduced throughout the nineteenth century.