Local and global English in the nineteenth century
The changing pace of communication (as well as the introduction of mass education) could bring new anxieties, not least that local dialects might disappear. The belief that traditional regional dialects needed to be recorded before they died out led to a range of scholarly investigations—and a spate of new books and articles on local varieties of English, e.g.:
Railways, telegraph, and School Boards—steam, electricity, and education—are surely killing dialects, even though of late years much attention has been paid to their preservation.
John Nicholson, The Folk Speech of East Yorkshire (1889)
In 1873 the English Dialect Society was formed, with the remit of gathering as much information as possible on regional English. The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905), edited by Joseph Wright, shared a similar impetus. Its six volumes aimed to represent the ‘complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years’.
Urban dialects—associated as they were with the spread of towns, cities, and industrialism—could nevertheless attract very different reactions. The legitimacy of different varieties could therefore be a matter of marked dissent. If some writers tried to provide a history for regional varieties which paralleled that of the standard variety, others insisted on the need for suppression and disuse:
It is an error, very common to the district between Rotherham and Barnsley [towns in the North of England], to use wrong verbs, &c. Such expressions as the following are very common: — ‘I were running,’ ‘We was running,’ ‘We’m running,’ meaning ‘We am running,’ …. The Teacher should point out to his pupils the erroneous expressions of their own locality, and endeavour to eradicate them.
William Pearson, The Self-Help Grammar of the English Language (1865)
At the same time the global reach of English was extraordinary. The nineteenth century was the heyday of the British Empire which, by 1900, covered twenty per cent of the world’s land surface and encompassed some 400 million people. The number of speakers of English is estimated to have risen from 26 million in 1800 to more than 126 million over the same time. This figure also, of course, includes English speakers in North America who had shed the legacies of empire, and whose language, as the Connecticut-born lexicographer Noah Webster argued, now needed equally independent reference models:
It is not only important, but in a degree necessary, that the people of this country should have an American Dictionary of the English Language … No person in this country will be satisfied with the English definitions of the words congress, senate, and assembly … for although these are words used in England, yet they are applied in that country to express ideas which they do not express in this country.
Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828)
The cross-currents between these different varieties nevertheless often still remained in evidence.
American vocabulary, for example, readily crossed the Atlantic, bringing words such as the inventive absqatulate (‘to decamp’) as well as elements which gradually became core elements of the English lexicon, such as enthuse, or which reflected American inventions (Kodak, sewing machine).
Indian English was a particularly fertile source of new words. Victoria, crowned queen of Great Britain and Ireland in 1837, was proclaimed empress of India in 1876. Terms such as amah, ayah, and tiffin still recall this phrase of cultural history, as do words such as bungalow (originally from Hindustani) and juggernaut, a word which, paradoxically, has come to denote a large lorry in English but which actually derives from a name for the Hindu deity, Krishna (in Sanskrit, it signifies ‘lord of the universe’).
By 1890, as the editor of Webster’s International Dictionary explained, the sense of an English which reached beyond an individual national variety was clear:
We recognize that the language of the mother-country now encircles the globe; that the literature of each of its branches is the common possession of all.
Noah Porter, Webster’s International Dictionary (1890)