English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

By Tim William MacHan; Charles T. Scott | Go to book overview

4
Style and Standardization in England: 1700-1900

EDWARD FINEGAN

By most reckonings, the English spoken and written in England in the period between 1700 and 1900 changed relatively little when compared to other periods. Indeed, the English language remained far more stable then than contemporary English social and economic life. Whereas the language of 1900 is similar to the language used two centuries earlier, a great gulf separates the people of 1900 from those of 1700. In 1700, England and Scotland were still ruled by separate monarchs. In 1707 they were united under a single monarchy, as they are united in one island. In 1700 England was an insular nation, with a nascent empire in North America. By 1900 the American colonies had long since become independent, and the industrial revolution had transformed both Britain and its former colony into great world powers. Moreover, by 1900, the power of the British monarchy, long since weakened, had faded to the largely ceremonial and symbolic functions it retains today.

In considering the English language in the period between 1700 and 1900, it is useful to remember that there is nothing particularly natural or enlightening in dividing history into century-long chunks. If we were interested in political history, the dates of particular events might serve better, such as the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 or the death of the Hanover line of British rulers in 1798. Were we interested in linguistic history, still other dates would be serviceable, but the same dates might not serve equally well for tracing syntax, phonology, and inflections. Depending on one's purpose, period names such as Restoration or Victorian might prove apt or, if we were to rely on themes rather than on rulers, we might use such terms as Augustan, Neo-classic, or Romantic. Centuries may be useful for their tidiness, but human activities, including linguistic and sociolinguistic ones, are not so tidy.


SOCIAL BACKGROUND

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not calm periods in English history. Britain lost the thirteen American colonies in the War of Independence and fought several wars with France. Repercussions from the social and political changes spawned by the French Revolution were felt in England. Besides

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