Strange Vernaculars: How Eighteenth-Century Slang, Cant, Provincial Languages, and Nautical Jargon Became English, by Janet Sorensen

The speech of the lower classes won acceptance only after a make-over, finds Elspeth Jajdelska

August 31, 2017
‘Billingsgate Market’, London, 1808 by J. Bluck after Rowlandson and Pugin
‘Billingsgate Market’, London, 1808 by J. Bluck after Rowlandson and Pugin

The 18th century has offered many historians a chance for fun with royal mistresses, stately homes, comic novels and tremendous hairstyles. The publisher spotted some of this potential in Strange Vernaculars, with its website highlighting “bum-boat woman” (a woman selling food and drink to sailors from a boat alongside a ship), “gentleman’s companion” (a louse) and “crewnting” (groaning like a horse).

The book itself is more sober. It explains how the speech of criminals, provincials, the labouring classes and sailors was recreated in print to fit the needs of the nation state. Like Linda Colley and John Barrell, Janet Sorensen shows the cracks of contradiction in the ideological plaster of nationalism and social hierarchy. If Britain is one people, then Britishness must live in the speech of the folk. But if we all speak one language, then class, gender and race distinctions become dangerously blurred.

Sorensen shows how a wide range of authors represented and classified the real or imagined speech of lower status groups, refashioning it as “strange vernaculars”: at once antiquarian object and living repository of British speech, the speech of a freeman not a slave.

She is especially strong on the hidden role of race. Defoe’s criminal heroes cross the linguistic line between free and slave, potentially blurring the racial dichotomy of black and white. But they end safely on the free side, verbally and economically, through their negotiations of cant and creole, and their use of racialised imagery to emphasise their own racial status. Sorensen is also interesting on London versus the provinces. Authors from Lancashire and Exeter, not unlike writers of today, were caught between local pride and the need to interest and entertain the metropolis. Her final section on sailors’ talk includes some fine points on Jane Austen, and on the allure of naval speech as both foreign and familiar, an allure that lies at the heart of the book.

Linguists, however, may be disappointed, if not frustrated. Sorensen limits herself to representations of language in print, rather than reconstructions of spoken usage. There is next to no discussion of the fine body of historical linguistic work on variation and change in the period, and from a linguist’s perspective, the terminology is loose. “Standard English” always refers to accent and vocabulary, with little or no mention of grammar. There is no distinction between long, often unconscious processes such as dialect levelling and the easy, visible tidying-up of spelling.

“Language” is used to mean, roughly, “language variety”. This is useful in some ways, but languages are often defined in terms of political geography. National borders cut through the dialect chains of mutually comprehensible varieties to create “languages” in this political sense. Sorensen’s use of “language” for “variety of English” also ignores the fact that 18th-century Britain was not anglophone but multilingual, silencing Scottish and Irish Gaelic as effectively as the Hanoverians did.

The exception to this neglect of real speech in favour of print representation is in sailors’ talk, where Sorensen gives empirical evidence of a polyglot reality and contrasts it with an aestheticised representation for the nation. Equipped with an awareness of sociolinguistic theory and history, a future project could build on this and allow us to hear other suppressed voices obscured by the fascinating print representations discussed in this work.

Elspeth Jajdelska is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Strathclyde and author of Speech, Print and Decorum in Britain, 1600-1750 (2017).

Strange Vernaculars: How Eighteenth-Century Slang, Cant, Provincial Languages, and Nautical Jargon Became English
By Janet Sorensen
Princeton University Press, 352pp, £32.95
ISBN 9780691169026
Published 28 June 2017


Print headline: Rough tongues enter the fold

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Reader's comments (1)

All languages started in the mouths of ordinary people. The lower orders did more to standardise English (and simplify its grammar) than in most languages, because English remained their main language for the three centuries after 1066, during which the upper classes used mainly French. Sadly, they were unable to affect its spelling, because they were illiterate. They would most likely not have left it as irrational and chaotic as the succession of clever boffins did, starting with monks in the 8th century substituting o for u in words like 'love, month' and 'wonder' and culminating with Johnson wrecking English consonant doubling in the 18th C. Because of his veneration of Latin, he bequeathed us ridiculous inconsistencies like 'shoddy body, very merry, sloppy copy'. (See EnglishSpellingProblems blog.) If ordinary people were able to do so, they would quickly clear up this mess.