Will Abberley, ‘To Make a New Tongue’: Natural and Manufactured Language in the Late Fiction of William Morris

Illustrated page of the Chamber of Love in the Wilderness from Morris' The Well at the World's End
The Chamber of Love in the Wilderness from Morris' The Well at the World's End (1896). Author's own image.

In 1885 William Morris wrote that poetry had become near-impossible in the modern age, since ‘language is utterly degraded in our daily lives, and poets have to make a new tongue each for himself: before he can even begin his story he must elevate his means of expression from the daily jabber to which centuries of degradation have reduced it’ (IIB 483). Abberley explores the intellectual influences that shaped Morris’s belief in such linguistic degradation, and how his late fiction strove to resist it.

Morris’s ideas on this score were moulded by the romantic philology of the mid-Victorian period, which depicted languages as living organisms. Philologists such as Max Müller claimed that modern civilization had arrested such growth, mechanizing language into conventional signs; and Morris adapted this model into a critique of industrial capitalism. He conceptualized modern English as manufactured external forms, sundered from organic history. His late prose fictions trace the ‘natural’ meanings of words which he imagined feudalism and capitalism had suppressed. Abberley examines this use of etymology through A Dream of John Ball, News from Nowhere and the more radical linguistic experiments of the later, fantasy-world romances.

However, this narrative of organic origins existed in tension with Morris’s socialist ideals, which sought an objective language above local or national perspectives. The older Morris was writing at a time when romantic philology was coming under attack from a new generation of scholars. These proto-linguists regarded meaning as conventional and narratives of organic ‘roots’ in the distant past mere mythology. Abberley argues that Morris’s struggles to reconcile the contradictions in his philosophy of language reflect wider tensions in romantic philology. His imaginary worlds in which everyone spoke the same relied upon myths of original linguistic unity and stasis which new research and theories were undermining. Ironically, Morris’s attempts to re-organicize English inadvertently demonstrated the conventionality and perspectivism of language, relying upon common cultural frames of reference.

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