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New Left Review I/150, March-April 1985

John Foster

The Declassing of Language

The novelty of Gareth Stedman Jones’s Languages of Class lies, as its title suggests, in its contention that the study of language must be the starting point for any understanding of political activity. [1] Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832–1982, Cambridge 1983. To some readers this proposition may seem a trifle obvious and not really novel at all. Yet, as Stedman Jones argues, it is precisely the study of language, in the full sense, that historians have neglected and, in doing so, they have fallen victim to quite erroneous modes of explanation. The gist of the argument is as follows. Till now out interpretation of the past has tended to treat language, what people said and wrote at the time, as something that could, quite simply, be taken down and used directly in evidence. There has been no effective comprehension, at least in the practice of the historian’s craft, that language, precisely because it is collective and social in character, cannot be used in this way. As an act of communication, it does not take place across the empty wastes of historical time between an isolated individual and his future historian. It is, on the contrary, a far more circumscribed activity between particular people sharing a living language to which the historian is not automatically party and which in turn structures and refracts the experience of its users. Accordingly, it is the reconstruction of this language, historically grounded, discrete yet discursive, alive with the inflections of contemporary use, that should be the starting point for the historian.

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