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