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Nineteenth-Century English

Richard W. Bailey
Traces the transformation of the English language through the nineteenth-century economic and cultural landscape.


Jane Austen's English is far different from Virginia Woolf's, but historians of the English language have given scant attention to the ways in which English changed over the course of the nineteenth century. In Nineteenth-Century English , Richard W. Bailey treads new ground by showing the extent to which the language changed as cultural and economic transformations brought us into the modern world.

Six aspects of nineteenth-century English are treated in separate chapters: writing, sounds, words, slang, grammar, and "voices." In each domain, innovation and obsolescence are discussed as they were observed by contemporary writers. Thus Bailey shows how linguistic details gained powerful social meaning in the emergent stratification by class, region, race, and gender of the anglophone community.

At the beginning of the century, the "Italian" sound of a in dance was thought to be an intolerable vulgarity; by the end, it was a sign of the highest refinement. At the beginning, OK had yet to be invented; by the end, it was being used in nearly all varieties of English and had appeared as a loanword in many languages touched by English. At the beginning, mixed forms of English—pidgins and creoles—were little known and thoroughly despised; by the end some of them had become vehicles for Bible translation. As English became a global language, it took on the local color of its surroundings, and proper usage became ever more important as an index of social worth, as a measure of intelligence, and as a gauge to a person's suitability for employment, often resulting in painful consequences. What the language was like changed dramatically. What people thought about the language changed even more.

Language changes as time goes by. Modern listeners can barely comprehend Old and Middle English. Although we are able to understand nineteenth-century English, the language changed with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, bilingualism, and growing literacy. In this book, Richard Bailey uses numerous examples and illustrations to demonstrate the changes in English. Furthermore, he identifies the connections between social events and linguistic transformation.

Richard Bailey was Professor of English, University of Michigan, and is known internationally as an expert on social and regional varieties of English.

Praise / Awards

  • "Bailey's book . . . elegantly treats a forbidding array of subjects, . . . Bailey concludes that 'nineteenth-century English was part of a social transformation that changed the language and changed the world', a deceptively simple truth, comprehensible only in its immense and complicated context, and upon the synthesis of linguistic and cultural material that Bailey accomplishes so gracefully in this splendid book."
    --American Speech
  • "Careful and accurate throughout, this book is especially strong in its observations about the role of language, particularly of usage, in creating and maintaining social stratifications. For this reason, it probes beyond language and grammar narrowly conceived, extending into anthropological, sociological, cultural, and ethnic considerations."
  • "Bailey's deep scholarship and generous spirit is everywhere present in the elegance and clarity of his writing in this handsomely designed and produced volume with its charming illustrations."
    --Journal of the Linguistic Society of America
  • "Treating the least well researched period in the history of English, Richard Bailey's groundbreaking book is an admirable success: wry in its humor, clear in its science, and compelling in its humanity. More than that, it is a sterling achievement of research, a model for all who write about the history of spoken or written English, a benchmark of scope and insight. . . . [Bailey's] linguistic theory is as informative and entertaining as the best history of any kind. It will interest not only students of the history of English, but also cultural historians, historians of the 19th century, and readers interested generally in language evolution. His book is perceptive, human, and salted with wry humor. For anyone interested in the socio-culturally contextualized history of English or 19th-century language evolution, it is a must-read; for other socio-linguists and historians, it is a nourishing confection."
    --Edward Finegan, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Language in Society, Volume 29, No. 2 (2000)
  • ". . . a highly engaging study of a broad and difficult subject. Bailey is an excellent writer--the chapters are well-organized and written in a vigorous style that is buoyed by a wry sense of humor. . . ."
  • ". . . a highly engaging study of a broad and difficult subject. Bailey is an excellent writer--the chapters are well-organized and written in a vigorous style that is buoyed by a wry sense of humor. . . . Any student of the history of the language--and certainly any lexicographer or scholar interested in lexicon--would be well served by reading Bailey's book."
    --Joseph P. Pickett, Lexicographica
  • ". . . immensely readable. . . . Bailey states his belief in each individual's ownership of language and his aim to present a balanced view of English regardless of the speaker's 'correctness' or geographic presence."
    --Michigan Academician
  • ". . . an engrossing cultural history of Victorian England and America. . . . Besides the purely intellectual pleasures it offers, Nineteenth-Century English is simply fun to read. . . . Bailey, to the unfailing entertainment of an intelligent reader, is always able to quote his examples, making them vivid on the page. . . . Perhaps the greatest virtue of Nineteenth-Century English is thus that it permits the modern reader to see in very clear terms where the battle against the bogey of prescriptivism came from--why it seemed so urgently necessary for so comparatively long a time to try to imagine that language was just another natural phenomenon among the rocks and stars and trees of the physical universe."
    --Michigan Quarterly Review
  • "[W]hat, Bailey asks was happening to our language in the century that saw the English-speaking population increased five-fold, and then, through empire, transformed from a truant local brilliance to magisterial world domination? The tale that Bailey has to tell in answer to this simple question is little short of enthralling. Drawing on previously neglected material--novels, magazines, letterers and diaries--he shows how the language came into the century a Georgian popinjay and left it a sober-suited man of business, purged of quirks and flashy curiosities. Along the way, Bailey uncovers a language which, while it seems familiar enough on the printed page of a Jane Austen novel, was actually quite different from the English we use today. . . . Bailey narrates this Anglo-American tale in fascinating and exemplary detail. . . ."
    --Robert McCrum, Observer (London)
  • ". . . entertaining, lucid, packed with detail, and refreshingly alert to the arresting quotation. If it is unusual to associate pleasurable reading with the scholarly analysis of language, Bailey also makes clear the serious philological and political implications of his study."
    --Times Literary Supplement
  • "Richard W. Bailey has written a fine study of a century of linguistic change, in which a massively expanded word-stock became polyglot and hybridized, in which fundamental changes in pronunciation and grammar took place which ever ceased to be politicized and disputed."
    --Times Literary Supplement

Look Inside

Copyright © 1997, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 386pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 1998
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08540-8

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  • $31.95 U.S.