/Beyond Culture: The Linguistic Aspects of Culture in British Literature – Pape Mawade SYLLA

Beyond Culture: The Linguistic Aspects of Culture in British Literature – Pape Mawade SYLLA

Pape Mawade SYLLA
Docteur en littérature anglaise, Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines (UCAD)
Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Sénégal – SENEGAL

What is British culture? When we say “English” certain icons come to mind; sausages, bread and butter, cornflakes, phlegmatic, calm, cool and collected are usually characteristics of “Englishness” whereas porridge, whisky, tartans, tight-fisted are icons referring to Scottishness. Whether true or false, these are internationally accepted icons. So, in this way is there any icon of Britishness? If any it is less evident. In literature, there is English literature, there is also Scottish literature, but not British literature. Yet we talk about British citizenship or British passport.

British culture is bipolarized between the working-class culture and the middle-class culture. The notion of Britishness came out in the mid-19th century. The Great Exhibition in 1851 emphasized the emergence of two cultures: the working-class culture represented by employees and landworkers and the middle-class workers represented by employers and landowners. Matthew Arnold theorized this dichotomy in his book Culture and Anarchy (1869), so did Lionel Trilling in his essay The Liberal Imagination (1950). Trilling explores the theme of what he calls “liberalism” by looking closely at the relationship between literature, culture, mind and the imagination. If our self-respect, our economic and social growth, and even our political survival depends on “being one”, these concepts of unity and diversity inevitably raise questions of languages and cultures.

This study will, at fi rst, analyze British culture in a literary perspective, then it studies the linguistic aspects of culture in relation to literature in order to show the part imagination plays in literary achievement.

1. A Redefi nition of
British Culture
The term ‘Britishness’ appeared in 1804 and ‘Scottishness’ in 1872. It is important to go back to the context of the period because Scottish writers emphasized Britishness. So, Scotland would lose if they emphasized Englishness. The Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish Parliamentsin 1707, led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain on the 1st May of that year. After the Union of Parliament between England and Scotland, writers like David Hume (1711-1776), tried to write pure English removing Scottish language, Scottish culture, which means Scottishness. Imagology, not yet recorded, means the study of images from various perspectives, for example, how British people are seen by different people and different views is a key factor in understanding Britishness and Scottishness.

David Hume upheld Les Belles Lettres and Rhetoric as the study of models and canons proper to English. In 1751, Adam Smith (1723-1790) gave a Lecture on Rhetoric and Belles lettres at Glasgow University. But referring to William Scott (1937), contrary to popular opinion, the lectures were not delivered at the University or under its auspices, but rather at one of the numerous clubs then fl ourishing in Edinburgh, probably the “Philosophical Society of Edinburgh”, originally a medical society whose range of interest was extended in 1737 to science and literature1.

The rhetoric lectures of 1748-51 were read to an enthusiastic and notable audience including among other men of lettres, Lord Kames and Hugh Blair, both of whom drew from Smith in their own subsequent works on rhetoric. The lectures concerned jurisprudence, then many domains of subject, which commanded Smith’s attention for its connection to natural law, morals and economics. Indeed, Smith’s conservative re-use of Edinburgh materials dates a number of his leading literary, political and economic principles to these apparently fertile years.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Scottish desire for self-improvement in literature and criticism had given considerable impetus to the study of Belles Lettres, creating a sympathetic climate of opinion to which Smith’s fundamental approach to rhetoric lectures and his Edinburgh success owed in part. In his article „Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres“ (1963), Bevilacqua makes the following clarifi cation about the eclosion of Scottishness:

But it was in the University of Edinburgh that Rhetoric and Belles Lettres was being given its widest and most scholarly encouragement. There, John Stevenson, professor of logic from 1730 to 1775, not satisfied merely with explaining the principles of logic and metaphysics, endeavoured “by prelections on the most esteemed classics, ancient and modern to instil into the minds, a relish for works of taste, and a love of elegant composition […] Stevenson’s academic rivalries is the impetus and support his lectures gave to the transition in Scottish philosophical- literary thought from formal logic and rhetoric considered separately and traditionally, to psychological and belletristic view of logic and rhetoric (43).

The belletristic view is of paramount importance in the accomplishment of Scottishness culturally, Thomas Reid (1852) considered it as an illustration of the various mental operations expressed by the several modifications of speech and writing[efn–note]xxx[/efn–note].

In Wealth of Nations (1776) and Theories of Moral sentiments (1759), Smith says that part of his endeavor is improvement of society, linguistically, proper style of language. His concern was economically, philosophically and rhetorically bound and linked with 18th _ century anxiety for improvement. So does his friend Blair, a chair holder at Edinburgh. Smith refers to models of proper English. He also refers to Alan Ramsay and other Scottish writers as barbarous. Hugh Blair often refers to “Ossian” (1760) poems in Gaelic, translated into English. The Rhetoric taught in the 18th_ century in Scotland was to become English Literature. Ramsay spoke often of the British language.

2. The Linguistic Aspects
of Culture
Cultural imperialism was done upon Scott by Scott (Smith and Blair), these two wanted Scotland to be recognized within the U.K. Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) is an epistolary novel, presented in the form of letters written by six characters. A classic in the history of the English novel, it takes the form of a collection of letters written by various members of Mr. Matthew Bramble’s family (for whom Humphry Clinker is a general servant) during their eight months of travel in England and Scotland in the 1760s. The wanderings of the Bramble party result in a series of amusing adventures and episodes, unfolding within the main plot in which the eccentric and contentious characters – „originals“ as Bramble’s nephew calls them – discover the sources of true happiness. Others writers, like Boswell were interested in this question of the status of the Scottish language.

In his novel Waverly (1814), the British nationalist writer Walter Scott confronts the question of Britishness. Inspired by tales that he had heard from veterans of the ’45 and by his own youthful travels in the highlands, he saw the fi ctional potential of a clash of cultures, and felt sure that “the ancient traditions and high spirit of a people who, living in a civilized age and country, retained so strong a tincture of manners belonging to an early period of society must afford a subject favorable for romance4 and has had a lasting impact on Scottish culture and politics. Much of the work that Mac-Diarmid published in the 1920s was written in what he termed „Synthetic Scots“: a version of the Scots language that „synthesized“ multiple local dialects, which MacDiarmid constructed from dictionaries and other sources.

From the 1930s onwards, MacDiarmid found himself turning more and more to English as a means of expression so that most of his later poetry is written in that language. His ambition was to live up to Rilke’s dictum that ‚the poet must know everything‘ and to write poetry that contained all knowledge. As a result, many of the poems in “Stony Limits” (1934) and later volumes are a kind of found poetry5 reusing text from a range of sources6]. For that reason, in his critical work Lives of the Poets (2007), Michael Schmidt notes that Hugh MacDiarmid “had redrawn the map of Scottish poetry and affected the whole confi guration of English literature” (643). In a nutshell, Mc- Diarmid opposes British imperialism using poems in English and Scottish.

This study has shown a redefinition of British culture and the linguistic aspects of culture. The belletristic view helped to understand its importance in the accomplishment of Scottishness and Britishness culturally through literature.

It reveals that Nationhood as such does not seem to be a well-defined concept in many respects; but its definition has been much debated since the 1980s. To come to a complete culture, it is necessary not to give up the task of defi ning and constructing a national culture. This seems to indicate that in Britain, and especially among the English, the sense of being a nation, or at least, of being a nation like others nations, is something that is only gradually being constructed; disparate elements that have been associated with it by various groups are gradually put together to form a consistent auto-stereotype: the long continuity and fl exibility of institutions. In this way, we understand why Standard English achieved its status, not because it is the most frequently used form, but because it is the language of those who exercise power – cultural, economic, academic, and inevitably political.

Arnold Matthew, 1869, Culture and Anarchy, Cornhill Magazine, London.
BEVILACQUA, Vincent, M.,1965 “Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres”, Studies in Scottish Literature”, Vol. 3, Iss. 1, 41–60.
BOSWELL, James, 1969, Waingrow, Marshall (ed.), Correspondence and Other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the Life of Johnson, McGraw-Hill, New York.
DOYLE, Brian, 1989, English and Englishness, Routledge, London and New York.
JAMESON, Frederic, 1991, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
JENKINS, David,1975, The British: Their Identity and their Religion, SCM Press, London
LEVINAS, Emmanuel, 1996, Proper Names, trans.
M.B. Smith Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.
MACDIARMID, Hugh, 1970, Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, University Press, California.
MCLEOD Alex, 1991, “English and Englishness by Brian Doyle”, Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2.
SCHMIDT, Michael, 2007, Lives of the Poets, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
SCOTT, Walter, 1814, Waverly, Edinburgh, London.
SMITH, Adam, 1963, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles
Lettres”, ed. John M. Lothian, London. ………………,1776, Wealth of Nations, W. Strahan
and T. Cadell, London. ………………,1759, Theories of Moral sentiments, Andrew Millar, Edinburgh.
SMOLLETT, Tobias, 1771, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Johnson and B. Collins, London.
TATE, Allen, 1968, Essays of four Decades, Swallow Press, Chicago.
…………………,1928, “Ode to the Confederate
Dead”, Minton Blach & Co., New York.
TRILLING, Lionel,1950, The Liberal Imagination:
Essays on Literature and Society, Viking Press, New
………………………,1942, The Sense of the Past, Partisan Review, New York.​


  1. See William Robert Scott, 1937, Adam Smith as Students and Professor, Jackson, Son & Company Glasgow.
  2. See Walter Scott, Waverly, Edinburgh University,London, www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/novels/waverley.html, December 2011.2. Following Boswell and Smollet, he upheld British ideology, in other words Britishness. Scott’s language is heterodox, not pure English, not pure Scott, either. Scottish writers tend to articulate British ideology, because they are British, they do it out of anxiety.

    Most recently, Christopher Murray Grieve, best known by his pen name Hugh McDiarmid (1892-1978), a Scottish poet, journalist, essayist and political figure, is considered one of the principal forces behind the Scottish Renaissance3was a mainly literary movement of the early to mid-20th century that can be seen as the Scottish version of modernism. It is sometimes referred to as the Scottish Literary Renaissance, although its influence went beyond literature into music, visual arts, and politics (among other fields). The writers and artists of the Scottish Renaissance displayed a profound interest in both modern philosophy and technology, as well as incorporating folk influences, and a strong concern for the fate of Scotland's declining languages.
    It has been seen as a parallel to other movements elsewhere, including the Irish Literary Revival, the Harlem Renaissance (in America), the Bengal Renaissance (in Kolkata, India), which emphasized indigenous folk traditions.

  3. Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. The resulting poem can be defi ned as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the poem.
  4. See Hugh MacDiarmid, free encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_MacDiarmid#cite_note-21 January 2021.