What is a Victorian Literary Language? – Blog Post by Gregory Tate and Karin Koehler

by Gregory Tate and Karin Koehler

Ahead of our second workshop at Trinity College Dublin on 25 and 26 August, we (re-)consider the key questions our network seeks to answer.

The first ‘Victorian Literary Languages’ workshop was held in St Andrews (and online) on 26 and 27 May 2022. It focused on Victorian literature’s interactions with grammar, lexicography, and philology. The programme was wide-ranging in its coverage: there were papers and conversations on Scottish spelling reform and Italian gesture language, the representation of regional dialects in fiction and in poetry, the Victorian OED and the twenty-first-century Dictionary of the Scottish Gaelic Language (Faclair na Gàidhlig). Nevertheless, a set of recurring concerns linked the diverse contributions. In this post, we try to distil these concerns into six research questions which will inform the discussions at our remaining two workshops in Dublin and Bangor – and beyond.

We’ve grouped the questions under three headings which reflect the most prominent topics of conversation at St Andrews: in each pair of questions, one focuses primarily on the specific nineteenth-century texts and discourses that the network is studying, while the other considers broader issues of terminology and methodology related to the study of Victorian literary language(s). But this blog post is a first draft. We look forward to revising and refining these questions in collaboration with the network’s participants in the comments below, at the second and third workshops, and in forthcoming publications and future activities.

Poetics of Language

  1. What makes a language literary?

Or, put differently, how was ‘literary language’ defined in the nineteenth century? Many speakers at St Andrews discussed how spoken idioms, regional dialects, and accents were viewed – often by lexicographers and other linguists – as antithetical to conventional standards and to the formalised literary language where such standards were encoded. Yet, dialects and colloquialisms were frequently used by writers as the bases of self-consciously new, alternative registers of literary expression. In exploring nineteenth-century negotiations over the relationship between ‘real’ language and ‘literary’ language, we are confronted with important questions about the (im)possibility of linguistic purity, about authenticity and artificiality, and about the implications of organic, evolutionary conceptions of language

  1. How can we attend to the aesthetic effects of such linguistic details of literary texts as grammar, sound, and spelling, while also acknowledging their wider historical and political implications?

The study of Victorian literary language requires us to read with varifocal lenses. We need to zoom in closely, to the level of individual graphemes and phonemes, the appearance and sound of single words, or the movement of a finger or eyebrow. But the closest readings still uncover findings that require us to zoom back out and place aesthetic features in broader contexts. Whether or not two lines of verse rhyme might well depend on the dialect or accent of the poet who wrote them, or the person who reads them. A single (mis-)spelling, Kirstie Blair’s paper suggested, might be a deliberate intervention in debates about the relationship between standard and non-standard language, and about standardised systems for visually rendering the ever-varied sounds of speech. And, as Will Abberley’s contribution demonstrated, a poetic feature like alliteration could have implications beyond the purely aesthetic, since evolutionary models of language associated alliterative patterns with linguistic primitivism.

Politics of Language

  1. How did literary languages define and express local, regional, and national identities in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland? How were they reshaped by globalising practices such as trade and imperialism?

Nineteenth-century writers continually made aesthetic choices that reveal the complex interactions between local, regional, and national identities in the four nations. Literary language could express patriotic pride, challenge the nation’s primacy, or register how identities were undone and remade in the global movement of people and things. At the first workshop, for instance, several papers attested to Robert Burns’s importance in creating a literary language that embodied Scottish identity, but which also became a model for regional and dialect poets beyond Scotland. Lara Atkin showed how the language of Burns became portable on a global scale. In his paper at St Andrews, and in a blog post for the network, he reads the poetry of Thomas Pringle as an expression of the ‘translocal’, which uses Scots, and borrows from the Scottish literary tradition of locodescriptive verse, to naturalise the presence of Scottish settlers in early-nineteenth-century South Africa.

  1. What political assumptions are implicit in the terminology that scholars use?

We have been reminded of this question at every stage of this network: drafting the funding application, writing our first blog post, planning programmes, listening to and discussing papers. At St Andrews, Matthew Campbell reminded participants that ‘Victorian’ is a word viewed with profound scepticism – and rarely used – by scholars of nineteenth-century Ireland. While ‘Victorian Wales’ or ‘Victorian Scotland’ may, at first sight, appear like less problematic constructs than ‘Victorian Ireland’, they require similar cautions. Does a genuinely four-nations perspective on nineteenth-century literary language require further rethinking of terms – already contested – such as ‘Victorian literature’ and ‘Victorian studies’?

Professions of Language

  1. What professions and institutions were concerned with language in the nineteenth century, and what different understandings of language did they produce and promote?

At St Andrews, Marcus Tomalin noted that there was no single term that described the study of language in the nineteenth century: ‘linguistics’ was a contested neologism that was not widely accepted until the twentieth. From lexicographers to poets, spelling reformers to dialectologists, philologists to educators, a variety of individuals and institutions worked to theorise, demarcate, and interrogate the standards and conventions of language. Our network needs to consider not just the multiple languages of nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland, but also the multiple ways and disciplinary, professional, and institutional frameworks in which language as a concept was discussed and defined.

  1. What methodologies can we use to rethink our own approaches to the study of language today?

As mentioned above, this network’s research is characterised by shifts in focus, from granular detail to broader contexts, and back to detail. In what new ways might the close reading of literary texts be combined with other methods? At St Andrews, Lynda Mugglestone’s examination of the proofs of the first edition of the OED modelled one possible approach, tracing the institutional and interpersonal dynamics that informed the dictionary’s production and demonstrating how Victorian assumptions about literary language shaped its eventual, highly influential form. The place of the digital humanities in the study of literary languages was also a prominent topic of conversation at St Andrews. Jane Hodson discussed ‘Dialect in British Fiction 1800-1836’, a digital humanities project that enables a large-scale analysis of the representation of dialect in 100 early-nineteenth-century novels. And Justin Tackett used digital humanities tools to demonstrate how new technologies of sound informed the development of a new language of professional literary criticism in the late Victorian period.

We look forward to hearing and thinking more about the potential of digital humanities methods at Dublin and Bangor. Ahead of the Dublin workshop, take a look at a blog post by Alison Chapman about the Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry Project, which showcases some of the ways in which digital humanities may enhance our knowledge and understanding of Victorian literary languages.

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