Among the things ‘everyone knows’ about the history of our language is that the eighteenth century saw the ‘rise of standard English’. What exactly this ‘standard’ was, and how exactly it ‘rose’, have rarely been discussed with much seriousness, even by specialists. We are told linguistic diversity was declared the enemy, as regionalisms were expelled and archaisms branded improper. Variety in spelling was transformed from a virtue to a vice, and the grammars of Robert Lowth, Joseph Priestley, and Lindley Murray laid down the law on split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions. Details about this process, though, are scarce. The language historians who tell this story usually mutter vaguely about ‘prescriptivism’ and ‘standardisation’, and then gesture in the direction of ‘inappropriate Latin models’, with a few out-of-context quotations from the preface to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755. It should be no surprise that the real story is vastly more complicated. Yes, some varieties of the English language were stigmatized in the eighteenth century, though this had much more to do with social class and ideas of politeness than with Latin infinitives. And alongside, the process of excoriating non-standard English was a parallel tradition, nearly as strong, of celebrating it, even fetishizing it: novelists lovingly recording ‘low’ language, antiquarians energetically collecting dialect forms, and respectable middle-class readers buying dictionaries of criminal cant. The latter part of the period was fascinated by the language of what Oliver Goldsmith called ‘the sons of unpolished rusticity’. The story is more complex than we have been led to believe. The scholarly situation has been improving slowly, and at last the pace seems to be picking up with several substantial books in just the last year taking an informed look at standard and non-standard Englishes in eighteenth-century Britain—all by authors who are well versed in the literature of the period. One such work is Paula McDowell’s Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain, which explores the place of orality—not, as many seem to assume, an unproblematic ‘background’ to literate culture, but a phenomenon that emerges out of a complex dialectical relationship with print. She demonstrates how much of the elegant and literary language of the gentility was bound up with street cries and ballads. More directly relevant to the subject is Daniel DeWispelare’s Multilingual Subjects: Standard English, Its Speakers, and Others in the Long Eighteenth Century. DeWispelare looks at where these standardization efforts failed or never got off the ground, and where non-standard varieties of English persisted into the period in which standard English was supposed to rule. He captures the traces of multilingualism, dialect writing, and other non-standard Englishes, and even describes the origins of what we have since come to call ‘global English’. Now Janet Sorensen takes up the complicated negotiations that took place around several linguistic registers in eighteenth-century Britain. While she quotes some of the prescriptive texts that have been served up so often in previous histories, she mostly turns her attention from ‘the printed texts that helped standardize English’ to the ‘languages attributed to the “common people,” variously defined—of the street, of dialect-speaking regions, of the workplace—representations that traded in opacity and puzzlement, yet also developed the notion of a national vernacular’ (p. 1). Of course, at a distance of three centuries, our only access to the ephemerality of the spoken language is through writing, so Sorensen is necessarily limited to written sources. In focusing on the ‘glossaries, novels, poems, plays, and songs that represent often-baffling terms shunned by representations of a standard English’ (p. 2), though, she is able to explore the development of the standard by keeping her attention fixed on what was excluded from that standard. Three large sections examine the three broad classes of ‘nonstandard’ language that occupy the book: cant and slang in the first, dialect in the second, and sailors’ language in the third. Sorensen knows the primary literature of the eighteenth century—Daniel Defoe, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson receive attention here—along with lexicographers and philologists like Samuel Johnson, Francis Grose, and Andrew Brice. Her focus is on ‘odd language that is nonetheless English’ (p. 17), and she performs sensitive close readings to tease out clues about these writers’ attitudes towards language. She is especially sensitive to signs that writers regarded the language they were using was non-standard, as when they resorted to distancing phrases like ‘as they call it’. Sorensen traces in detail how elements of the English language were estranged, made to seem alien to native speakers, and yet never entirely expelled from English and certainly not dismissed from consideration. She notes that ‘print institutions of the vernacular made room for the “common people” within national culture, but only after representing their language as strange’ (p. 3). This strangeness was ‘troublingly pressed by the very concept of the “common people”’ (p. 3), for ‘common’, like ‘vulgar’, can signify both ‘widespread’ and ‘low’. What makes the book especially worthwhile is Sorenson’s attention to the paradoxes and contradictions in this process. Eighteenth-century English was both ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’, a language that created a coherent community by simultaneously ejecting and embracing what was branded as foreign or low. ‘The popularity of cant dictionaries is somewhat surprising’, she acknowledges, ‘given the century’s alignment of linguistic standardization with both moral probity and national cohesion’ (p. 42). Provincialisms, too, were simultaneously praised for retaining ‘the earliest forms of English’ (p. 131) and criticized for being crude and impolite. The boundary separating ‘standard’ from ‘illegitimate’ English was never clear. Most important, Sorensen looks at the ‘functions’ of this not-quite-natural-but-not-quite-alien English in the literature of the period. Her book is therefore ‘not a linguistic study, but rather a study of the cultural work of print representations of “vernacular” language’ (p. 21)—it is properly shelved among the literary histories, not the histories of the language. She argues, for instance, that Defoe’s deployment of ‘low languages’ serves ‘as a kind of truth-telling, an establishing of credibility’ (p. 61), whereas Gay’s ‘generic structures alienate the vernacular diversity that Defoe’s realist fictions had dramatized’ (p. 94). There are similar distinctions made throughout the book, and Sorensen is less concerned with broad brushstrokes than with detailed close readings. The book is therefore not easy to summarize, with no single thesis that can be stated straightforwardly. It is, however, consistently enlightening and thought-provoking. There is, of course, much to disagree with, though most of the disagreements will be productive ones. Not all the readings are convincing—at least not to me—and I would have been happier with more attention to developments across the eighteenth century, as linguistic attitudes in 1700 were very different from those of 1800. But I learned much from Strange Vernaculars, a dense, demanding, and thoroughly rewarding book. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 5, 2018
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