LINGUIST List 12.485

Wed Feb 21 2001

Review: Gorlach, English in 19th c. England

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at or Terry Langendoen at


  1. s1377209, Review of Gorlach, English in 19th century

Message 1: Review of Gorlach, English in 19th century

Date: Thu, 15 Feb 2001 15:06:23 -0500 (EST)
From: s1377209 <>
Subject: Review of Gorlach, English in 19th century

Gorlach, Manfred (1999). English in Nineteenth-
Century England: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. 338 pages.

Gerard Van Herk, University of Ottawa

Studies of the relatively recent past of English
may, at first glance, seem unnecessary. We assume that
English Standard English, at least had largely
assumed its present form two centuries ago, making the
English of 1850 too recent, and too similar to what we
speak today, to be worthy of interest. Manfred Gorlach's
_English in Nineteenth-Century England: An Introduction_
is, by turns, a refutation of that stance and a partial
confirmation of the presumptions that give rise to it.

The 338-page book divides neatly in two. The first
half contains Gorlach's description of the language and
linguistic attitudes of 19th-century England; the second
half is a collection of 19th-century texts that
illustrate those linguistic features and attitudes.

Chapter 1, "Introduction," describes why Gorlach
feels an accessible book on 19th-century English (in
England) is necessary: the sociolinguistic foundations
of present-day English result from 19th-century social
factors, and these factors and their linguistic
consequences can profitably be compared to other
Englishes and to the standard languages of other
urbanized countries. He briefly surveys major
sociocultural developments of the period, existing
research, historical (17th-18th c.) background,
urbanization and education, grammar books, and the rise
of the standard. The shaping of the language by
prescriptive grammarians, rather than by literary or
social elites, is a theme that Gorlach introduces here
and continues through the book.

Chapter 2 deals with regional and social varieties,
touching on attitudes, written vs. spoken English,
regional variation, dialect literature, Cockney,
sociolects, modes of address, and linguistic change. The
emphasis in this chapter is on the attitudes toward
these varieties, rather than on description.
Chapters 3 to 6 deal with strictly linguistic
concerns: spelling and pronunciation (ch. 3, 44-64),
inflection (Ch. 4, 65-68), syntax (Ch. 5, 69-91), and
lexis (Ch. 6, 92-138). The relative length of each
chapter reflects the importance attached to each topic
by Gorlach. It also illustrates the degree of divergence
in each area between 19th-century (Standard) English and
what preceded and followed it.

Chapter 3 is divided equally between spelling and
pronunciation. Gorlach highlights the increasing
prestige of standard spelling, and the research
potential of surviving letters and diaries by those who
"spelt in a wayward manner, basing their homemade
conventions more or less on the way they spoke" (45).
The majority of this section, however, is concerned with
spelling reform, and is thus perhaps of more interest to
students of the history of linguistics than to students
of English. The pronunciation section socially situates
the rising stigma attached to h-dropping, g-droppin',
Whales/Wales levelling, and particular vowel sounds in
after or due, as well as briefly touching on variable
stress in polysyllabic Latinate words.

The brevity of the chapters on inflection and
syntax, especially inflection, may remind the reader of
Monty Python ("Chapter 4 -- there is NO chapter 4!"), but
this distribution is sound. Gorlach points out that the
"major problems of English inflectional morphology had
long been settled" (65) by this point, at least in the
standard variety. He touches on the continuing concerns
of grammarians over comparatives and superlatives
(candidest), pronouns (It's me), and irregular tense
formation (wrote/written). The syntax chapter discusses
the gulf between the concerns of grammarians and actual
use. It briefly describes the continuing decline of _be_
perfects (I am arrived), the subjunctive, and inverted
conditionals (Had I known), and details prescriptive
concerns over "double negatives," concord of number
(There is nine of us), may/can, shall/will, and
that/which. Gorlach perhaps reveals his identification
with 19th-century prescriptivists here by describing such
remnants of variability as "problem areas."

Chapter 6, on lexis, begins with a brief history of
19th-century lexicography and a useful discussion of
slang: its association with Cockney, its spread by
writers like Dickens, and contemporary attitudes toward
it. Gorlach follows this with a summary of new lexical
items from Scots and American English, French, "Neo-
Latin/Greek internationalisms," and language-internal
processes like compounding and the newly-popular
derivational suffixes ism and -ize. Semantic shifts are
situated with respect to sociohistoric issues like
industrialization and Victorian prudery.

Chapter 7 examines some of the genres ("text types
and styles") making up 19th-century (mostly written)
English, with an emphasis on the upper end of the
market: religion, legal language, philosophical
exposition, journalism, advertising, recipes, book
dedications, speeches, letters, literary language,
poetic diction, and plays. Chapter 8 is an extremely
modest set of provisional conclusions (two paragraphs).

Chapter 9 (165-285) will be the most appealing to
data hounds, consisting as it does of over 100 samples
of 19th-century writings that discuss or exemplify the
language of the era. The texts are presented under four
headings: "On language, grammar and style," "On
dialect," "On literature and criticism," and "On history
and culture." The chapter is particularly strong on
texts illustrating linguistic attitudes and upmarket
genres (if "Letters from Queen Victoria" qualifies as a
genre). Sociolinguists, dialectologists, and social
historians will be more interested in the working-class
letters, urban crime ballads, and parodies of dialect
writing -- in fact, virtually everything on dialect and
history/culture. Chapter 10 (286-302) annotates the
texts of Chapter 9.

The book accomplishes much in its first eight
chapters, and clearly signposts the reader to other
useful work (especially Mugglestone 1995, Bailey 1996,
and Romaine 1998). The style of 19th-century writing on
language shines through in Gorlach's own prose, which is
erudite and engagingly curmudgeonly, although post-
structuralist readers may be disturbed by his
unproblematized use of terms like "social climber." The
tone occasionally turns prickly, especially in the
brusque dismissal of (competing?) research stategies and

_English in Nineteenth-Century England_ is clearly
a product of the same research that led to Gorlach's _An
Annotated Bibliography of 19th-Century Grammars of
English_ (1998). Gorlach's immersion in the prescriptive
work of the period informs everything here, and is
responsible for the book's three main strengths and one
major weakness.

For many, the book will be most useful for its
description and situating of the language attitudes of
the era. Any student of contemporary (English) language
attitudes would gain perspective from a careful reading
of both Gorlach's writing and the texts, and the book
would pair well with Crowley (1989) in a course on such
attitudes and the construction of the standard. The 82
very brief exercises included, reminiscent of those in
early pedagogic grammars, would contribute to student
learning, if adequately fleshed out and supported in a
classroom setting.

The book's thorough description and exemplification
of the increasingly-codified Standard English of the 19th
century is another strength. Gorlach takes pains to
situate the language with respect to the major currents
of the century, be they social, economic, technological,
or philosophical. The reader's potential jumping-off
points for further research on any one aspect
are rich and varied.

The book's third strength is the scope and quality
of the collected texts. Anyone with enough interest in
earlier English to have read this far will enjoy the
apocalyptic warnings of W.H. Savage (173-174), the
threatening letter from Durham (201), the playbill from
Varney the Vampyre (221), How To Cook A Husband (254),
or George Eliot's mock-zoological description of Silly
Novels By Lady Novelists (224).

On the debit side, Gorlach appears to have read so
many 19th-century prescriptivists that he has absorbed
their view of what constitutes a suitable object of
linguistic study. Standard and literary English are
covered, and covered well, but the vernacular of the
other 97% of the population of 19th-century England
receives short shrift. This is especially true of the
first half of the book, which describes the features of
the standard language, but only attitudes toward the
non-standard. Information on non-standard varieties is
available, sometimes even from prescriptivist works
themselves (Poplack et al. in press). Sociolinguists and
dialectologists will glean some clues to earlier
regional or working-class English from the texts, but
most readers will receive a top-heavy picture of 19th-
century English.

Within those parameters, however, this is a very
satisfying book, a sturdy roast beef-two-veg look at
Standard English. As such, it sheds needed light on an
important and often overlooked stage in the codification
of what has become the target language for much of the
21st-century world.


Bailey, Richard W. 1996. _Nineteenth-Century English_.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Crowley, Tony. 1989. _The Politics of Discourse: the
Standard Language Question in British Cutlural Debates.
London: Macmillan. (**Not sure this is the right Crowley

Gorlach, Manfred. 1998._An Annotated Bibliography of
19th-Century Grammars of English_.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Muggleston, Lynda. 1995. _'Talking Proper': The Rise of
Accent as Social Symbol_. Oxford: Clarendon.

Poplack, Shana, Gerard Van Herk, and Dawn Harvie. In press.
"Deformed in the dialects": An alternative history of
non-standard English. In Peter Trudgill & Richard Watts
(Eds.), _The History of English: Alternative Perspectives_.
London: Routledge.

Romaine, Suzanne (Ed.). 1998. _The Cambridge History of
the English Language: 1776-Present-day_ (Vol. IV).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gerard Van Herk is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the
University of Ottawa. His research interests include
early African American English, the history of
prescriptivism, and Barbadian English.

Gerard Van Herk
Linguistics, 70 Laurier
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ont K1N 6N5
TEL: 613-562-5800 ext. 1184
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue