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Strange Vernaculars:
How Eighteenth-Century Slang, Cant, Provincial Languages, and Nautical Jargon Became English
Janet Sorensen

Hardcover | 2017 | $39.95 | £32.95 | ISBN: 9780691169026
352 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 8 line illus.
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How vocabularies once associated with outsiders became objects of fascination in eighteenth-century Britain

While eighteenth-century efforts to standardize the English language have long been studied—from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to grammar and elocution books of the period—less well-known are the era's popular collections of odd slang, criminal argots, provincial dialects, and nautical jargon. Strange Vernaculars delves into how these published works presented the supposed lexicons of the "common people" and traces the ways that these languages, once shunned and associated with outsiders, became objects of fascination in printed glossaries—from The New Canting Dictionary to Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—and in novels, poems, and songs, including works by Daniel Defoe, John Gay, Samuel Richardson, Robert Burns, and others.

Janet Sorensen argues that the recognition and recovery of outsider languages was part of a transition in the eighteenth century from an aristocratic, exclusive body politic to a British national community based on the rhetoric of inclusion and liberty, as well as the revaluing of a common British past. These representations of the vernacular made room for the "common people" within national culture, but only after representing their language as "strange." Such strange and estranged languages, even or especially in their obscurity, came to be claimed as British, making for complex imaginings of the nation and those who composed it. Odd cant languages, witty slang phrases, provincial terms newly valued for their connection to British history, or nautical jargon repurposed for sentimental connections all toggle, in eighteenth-century jest books, novels, and poems, between the alluringly alien and familiarly British.

Shedding new light on the history of the English language, Strange Vernaculars explores how eighteenth-century British literature transformed the patois attributed to those on the margins into living symbols of the nation.

Examples of slang from Strange Vernaculars

  • bum-boat woman: one who sells bread, cheese, greens, and liquor to sailors from a small boat alongside a ship
  • collar day: execution day
  • crewnting: groaning, like a grunting horse
  • gentleman's companion: lice
  • gingerbread-work: gilded carvings of a ship's bow and stern
  • luggs: ears
  • mort: a large amount
  • thraw: to argue hotly and loudly

Janet Sorensen is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing.


"Sorensen shows how a wide range of authors represented and classified the real or imagined speech of lower status groups, refashioning it as 'strange vernaculars'. . . . She is especially strong on the hidden role of race. . . . Her final section on sailors’ talk includes some fine points on Jane Austen, and on the allure of naval speech as both foreign and familiar, an allure that lies at the heart of the book."--Elspeth Jajdelska, Times Higher Education


"Sorensen integrates perspectives from historical sociolinguistics, dialectology, lexicography, literary criticism, folklore, and social history to give us a fresh and fascinating account of the growth of vernacular English in the early modern period. In her breadth of reading and depth of illustrative detail, she provides a hugely insightful contribution to our knowledge of the history of English studies that will quickly make Strange Vernaculars a standard work of reference."--David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

"In this marvelous book, Sorensen recovers overlooked complexities in the stories of national unification and linguistic standardization often recounted by scholars of Enlightenment Britain. Her discussion of the charisma that eighteenth-century writers and readers attached to heteroglot, canting, and riddling Englishes also represents an innovative work of literary history. Strange Vernaculars is remarkable for its erudition and its author’s keen ear for verbal fun."--Deidre Lynch, author of Loving Literature

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
I Wandering Languages: From Cant To Slang 25
1 Reappraising Cant: “Caterpillars” and Slaves 27
2 Daniel Defoe’s Novel Languages 57
3 John Gay’s Overloaded Languages 86
4 The Gendered Slang of Century’s End 106
II The Language Of Place: From “living” Provincial Languages To The Language Of The Dead 129
5 Provincial Languages out of Place 133
6 “I Do Not Like London or Anything That Is in It”: The Provincial Offensive 167
7 Provincial Languages and a Vernacular out of Time 192
III Wandering In Place: Maritime Language 231
8 Our Tars: Making Maritime Language English 234
Notes 273
Index 321

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