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19th Century English

May 26, 2016

We briefly looked at 19th century texts, having found an example at home.

These are varied and sophisticated in their range of possible topics, in their typographical and organisational resources (including the possibility of illustrations and diagrams), and the increasing range of possible audiences too. Towards the end of the 19th century/Victorian period, education was becoming widespread and available to the lower classes as well as leisured upper/upper-middle classes. News journalism was becoming daily and more specialised, as steam-driven presses were able to produce large amounts of printed material. These large machines could also produce large posters; use colour more freely; and typographic design meant that advertisers would compete for increasingly attractive (dense!) layouts, packing in material that varied between the bold and abrupt, and the detailed promotional language.

Sentences tended to be lengthy, we saw, with suspended sentences being typical toward the end of the period. These were sentences, in which, due to the embedding of other clauses within the earlier noun phrases and adverbials, which were often fronted, thanks in some degree to a predilection on the part of writers to engage with such a style, and a propensity for listing, the better to make vivid settings and circumstances, or to itemise the many benefits of the goods or serviced being advertised, for instance, the point of the sentence would be deferred, only appearing after such meandering digressions, at the very end. (If you hadn’t noticed, that sentence was an example!) This densely embedded and elaborated grammatical structure expected readers to hold an awful lot of information in mind — but this was an audience now used to reading, and able to do so at length: there was not yet the competition of radio (‘the wireless’) or TV. Aim to do better when writing about these sentences that just describing them as ‘long’ — look for embedded clauses, listing structures, track down the main verb in the sentences.

Lexis was also very varied, as we had seen in the music journalism section: often Latinate or based in Greek, and freely shifting into other languages, such as French, on the assumption that the audience would as a matter of course have been educated in such matters. Gone from the language by this point, however, are a number of features we have seen up until now: no more thee/thou except in dialect, no more long ‘s’ or u/v i/j rules (they have their modern values), -eth has been fully replaced by -es for third person singular present; with the exception being perhaps in ‘poetic diction’.

We looked in more detail at little features of grammar around this period, using texts from Jane Austen. In many ways Austen’s work is utterly modern (having been an influence on the development of the novel form), with relatively short paragraphs, lots of dialogue, and a tendency for fewer suspended sentences than later in the work of, say, Dickens. But we practised identifying specific, small scale patterns of grammatical variation, of the sort which are mark-earning in the exam. Taking just a couple of instances of preposition differences, changes in auxiliary usage, differing patterns of articles, unfamiliar uses of tenses and verb forms, we can imagine what we would naturally say in present-day English and classify using a technical term. What motivates these then is the gradual shift of preferred styles; in some cases there might be a more particular reason for a given change, but just to identify a pattern and motivate by timescale is worth a mention. the Austen exercise is reproduced for reference here: Austen Language Change


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