Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"The Slangwhangery of the Jargonists": Writing, Speech, and the Character of Romanticism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"The Slangwhangery of the Jargonists": Writing, Speech, and the Character of Romanticism

Article excerpt

VULGAR SPEECH CHALLENGES THE ROMANTIC FAITH IN THE ACCESSIBILITY of character in writing. With a few conspicuous exceptions, slang comes to us almost exclusively in the form of dictionaries and glossaries. Yet it was part of a wider verbal soundscape that Romantic poetry and prose sought to capture and reproduce. And whereas slang was an important component of contemporary spoken language, in order for speech to become the repository of character in print, slang needed to be deflected, set apart from "the very language of men." (1) From William Wordsworth's "real language of men" (754) and Joanna Baillie's "slight traits in... words" that convey "impressions of... character" (2) to William Hazlitt's praise of Sterne's style, in which "You fancy that you hear the people talking," (3) for many Romantic writers character was revealed by the way people spoke, not just what they said. "We cannot judge either of the feelings or of the characters of men with perfect accuracy, from their actions or their appearance in public," Maria Edgeworth proposes: "it is from their careless conversations, their half finished sentences, that we may hope with the greatest probability of success to discover their real characters." (4) Edgeworth herself, like Robert Burns and Walter Scott, connects national character to "vernacular idiom" (5); Wordsworth traces the "primary laws of our nature" in the "plainer and more emphatic language" of "low and rustic life" (743); while Pierce Egan's Tom and Jerry mind their P's and Q's among the "'Highflyers' at ALMACKS, at the West End," lest their slang should reveal the taint on their characters left by their interactions with the "'choice creatures' at our ALL MAX in the East," where they have been slumming. (6) With the notable exception of this last form of experience, slumming, slang seldom finds a place in literature outside the mouths of criminals, or rather its place is necessarily, and significantly, elsewhere. (7)

Slang reveals a meaningful gap, in other words, between Romantic theory and practice--not so much a failure as a telling absence. Heroes of conventional, written history "talk in... measured prose," suggests Edgeworth. (8) In place of measured prose, Romantic writing puts common speech, dialect, and careless conversation in the mouths of its protagonists--a radical revision of the neoclassical assumption that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry," (9) and a democratizing assertion that character is to be found and represented in high and low alike, that "We have all of us one human heart" (233), as Wordsworth's speaker concludes in "The Old Cumberland Beggar." If during the Romantic era English poetry ceases to have "a language peculiar to itself" (10) and instead adopts common speech as suited to writing, it does so by distancing itself from, even purging itself of, what Francis Grose capaciously called "the vulgar tongue." (11)

Impossible to categorize neatly, slang in the early nineteenth century was an umbrella term, distinct from dialect (regional vocabulary, phraseology, and pronunciation) and generally covering three spoken, often overlapping forms: "cant," the not-so secret phraseology of criminals, "A corrupt dialect used by beggars and vagabonds" (12); "jargon," the technical terms of various professions and callings; and "flash," the fashionable codes--drawing on cant as well as university, sporting, and theatrical lingos--of elite or aspirational "buckish" young men who moved between high life and low. (13) In all cases, unlike Wordsworth's "language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society" (738) or Hazlitt's "familiar style," slang remains resolutely oral, local, particular, and of the moment. (14) When read in print, slang tends to be relegated to the marginal and fairly safe, even neutralizing, confines of criminal biographies and autobiographies, sports writing, and, above all, antiquarian catalogues and dictionaries, where its advocates register the hostility. …

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