Strange Ver­nac­u­lars

How Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury Slang, Cant, Pro­vin­cial Lan­guages, and Nau­ti­cal Jargon Be­came English

Fortean Times - - Reviews - Janet Sorensen James Hol­loway

In the 18th cen­tury, English went through a process of stan­dard­i­s­a­tion that re­sulted in the cre­ation of a more or less uni­fied na­tional lan­guage. At the same time, how­ever, English writ­ers pub­lished works deal­ing with “strange” English: the cant or slang of crim­i­nals, beg­gars and other out­siders, re­gional di­alect and vo­cab­u­lary, and the tech­ni­cal jargon of sailors. Janet Sorensen ar­gues that these ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages con­trib­uted to an un­der­stand­ing of the Bri­tish – and par­tic­u­larly English – na­tional char­ac­ter as di­verse and “free”, un­re­stricted by the lim­its of an “of­fi­cial” na­tional lan­guage.

Each of the three sec­tions is de­voted to one of the three “strange ver­nac­u­lars” Sorensen con­sid­ers. Most of the book is de­voted to the first two sec­tions on cant and re­gional lan­guage. Sorensen draws from a wide range of lit­er­ary sources, in­clud­ing plays, dic­tio­nar­ies, nov­els, prints

and more. She demon­strates not only how per­cep­tions of this “com­mon” lan­guage changed over time but how the very idea of “com­mon” lan­guage changed, fluc­tu­at­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent mean­ings and ul­ti­mately re­main­ing elu­sive.

Strange Ver­nac­u­lars is packed with fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ples of early mod­ern slang, jargon and di­alect, but it’s not in­tended as a guide to 18th cen­tury ver­nac­u­lars, but rather for an au­di­ence with some back­ground in the lin­guis­tic and lit­er­ary his­tory of the era. But for read­ers in­ter­ested in the evo­lu­tion of English, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing look at the role strange­ness and oth­er­ness played in the de­vel­op­ment of a na­tional lan­guage and iden­tity.

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