John Clare's Words and Their Survival in America

By Robinson, Eric H. | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

John Clare's Words and Their Survival in America


Robinson, Eric H., Wordsworth Circle


Language unites us and language divides. My focus is the language of John Clare, and the survival of his words in different locations and social strata of America. It is impossible to know all Clare's words, or all his words still used in America, but the link between the greatest English rural poet and the country to which he once thought of emigrating is intriguing. The study of dialects have always interested me. I remember as an eight-year-old, my school-mates gathering round me, listening to my "Zummerzet" [Somerset]--O don'ee keep on, muther. Don'ee keep on"--while they spoke "Brummy" [Birmingham]--"Ai yo' seen our kid, our 'acker' from Airdington, Bairmingam?" [Erdington, Birmingham]. As a child, dialect was an asset--as a teenager, speaking my own dialect might have got me a black eye. Dialect is not inferior, it is just different. And "slang" has many definitions, no one of which is adequate.

No scholar can live without dictionaries. The most important, is the Oxford English Dictionary which includes dialect words. These days, I do not simply consull dictionaries: I also try to read them from end to end. One example is Anne Elizabeth Baker's Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854). I had been consulting it for years before I read through it and discovered that: (1) Miss Baker (O.E.D. always refers to her in this Victorian way) had been a friend of John Clare for some years before he turned up in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum; (2) he was her principal informant in producing her glossary and she acknowledges him ever)' time she uses a word that he has taught her; and (3) like Clare, she was anxious to record the local customs and practices of Northampton as well as "words" and "phrases." Many of the English lexicographers of the 18th and 19th centuries were also anxious to record not only words, but also folk-customs, agricultural practices, and many other aspects of a world that was beginning to disappear.

Another special dictionary is the four-volume (so far) set of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English. This ongoing project, emanating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is under the leadership of Joan Houston Hall. It is surprising how many words and phrases that I had previously culled from English dictionaries and glossaries are to be found in DARE. Clare's vocabulary is part of a vast assembly of English words still used by Americans, and Clare uses many Northern and Scottish words that have survived in America and in Canada, but have fallen out-of-use in modern Britain. In his own day (1793-1864), Clare also used several English words that had already become "Americanisms."

Moreover, in dealing with Clare's language, one is not simply studying the vocabulary used in his time by farm-laborers and their families in the East Anglian fens and the Northamptonshire wolds. Clare's varied learning also demands a better knowledge of the terms used in his time by students of botany, ornithology, fungology, zoology, music, archaeology, numismatics, and several other disciplines. There, too, are links to Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse. For example, there is in Clare's letters a system of punctuation using transverse strokes instead of commas and full-stops, such as may be seen in late 15th and early 16th century printed books, even, on one occasion, a voiced Anglo-Saxon thorn, [dagger]. Finally, Clare invented a private code based on the omission of vowels in written Hebrew.

Clare's enthusiasm for languages appears in a letter that he wrote to his son, Charles, November 7, 1849, while he himself was a patient in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He reminded the boy to keep up his Hebrew "... How do you get on with Latin Greek& Hebrew & Mathematics--you must not forget learning..." (Mark Storey, ed. The Letters of John Clare [1985],.665) These were sophisticated goals for the sons of a self-taught agricultural laborer. …

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