Nineteenth-century English—an overview

By Lynda Mugglestone

For many people the nineteenth century was a time of profound and accelerated change, one in which, as the poet and writer Thomas Arnold remarked, it seemed possible to live ‘the life of three hundred years in thirty’ (Letters on the Social Conditions of the Operative Classes, 1831-2). Industrialization, urbanization, as well as the emergence of new technologies and new scientific discoveries all meant that the realities of daily life differed markedly between 1800 and 1900. Education and levels of literacy levels also experienced significant change. Revolutions in printing technology moreover meant that books and newspapers could be produced faster—and more cheaply—than ever before; the ramifications of the General Education Act of 1870 (by which all children in Britain received compulsory schooling) meanwhile meant that, by 1900, more people than ever before were able to read.

As in previous eras, language serves as an admirable witness to both history and change. Nineteenth-century conflicts such as the Crimean War (1854-6) are memorialized in words such as cardigan (named after James Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade) and balaclava (which derives from the name of a Crimean village near Sebastopol). Words such as bloomer and blue-stocking (as well as emancipatress) conversely still evoke the history of very different battles, and the various conflicts which surrounded female dress, education, and independence.

Communications and contact

While the horse-drawn stage-coach (and indeed the horse-drawn cab) continued in use, new verbs such as to omnibus and to train also succinctly confirm the changing nature of communication and travel. By the end of the century, the bus (the form omnibus was swiftly shortened while the plural omnibi proved spectacularly short-lived) was powered by motor rather than horses. The motor car was also in evidence, though what exactly this new mode of transport should be called remained a matter for debate:

A name has not yet been found for horseless carriages … The latest suggestion we have had is ‘motor car’.
Daily Chronicle (25 October 1895)

Rail and railways perhaps offered the most extensive changes, providing a ready means of long-distance geographical mobility which spanned the nation by the end of the century. The first passengers travelled by train in 1825 and within twenty years the Times spoke of this ‘present railway age’ (9 August 1845). A host of other new expressions and idioms testify to the pervasiveness (and popularity) of railway transport in the era of steam. Railway porter, -tunnel, or –platform were, for instance, joined by the railway bookstall from which one could purchase cheap railway novels, or the railway sandwiches one could consume, as well as the hazards of what was known as railway spine (‘a disorder characterized by pain in the back … occurring especially after a railway accident’). Ships were also revolutionized by steam. By 1821, Sir Walter Scott was already enthusiastically commending the speed by which a journey to London from Edinburgh could be achieved:

[We] can now make the journey in the Steam ship within 60 hours and without any fatigue thus beating the mail coach with the full advantage of sleep and stretching of limbs.
letter to his son, 6 July 1821

Communication in terms of the written and spoken word meanwhile saw other patterns of transformation. The invention of the electric telegraph (and the telegram – an American coinage which dates from the early 1850s) has been described as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the internet; for the first time, language could be transmitted—at unprecedented speed—without the need for face-to-face interaction. Fast long-distance linguistic communication became a reality. A submarine cable linked Dover and Calais by 1851 while in the United States, Western Union built its first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. The introduction of the telephone (which quickly generated its own verb to telephone) presented similar opportunities for spoken language; direct speech no longer required the physical presence of the speaker in the same room as the person or persons being addressed.

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Local and global English

The changing pace of communication (as well as the introduction of mass education) could, however, also 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.

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, 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 over 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 crosscurrents 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). Budgerigar derived from Australian English, as did other terms for once unfamiliar flora and fauna (such as galah and kookaburra). Indian English was a particularly fertile form 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)

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Recording the language

Thanks to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in the late 1870s—the ‘new wonder of the day’, as Lewis Carroll enthusiastically described it—the nineteenth century remains the first in which we are able to hear the ways in which the spoken language was actually used. Recordings of the poet Alfred Tennyson and of the nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, for example, still preserve intact the voices of the past.

The sense that dictionaries too should record the realities of language in use (rather than an idealized and normative version of words and meaning) was to be another important shift. In 1857, Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench delivered two lectures to the London Philological Society in which he stressed that the dictionary-maker was to be ‘an historian, not a critic’. In future the dictionary-maker should describe the objective facts of language rather than aiming to provide, as had often been the case in earlier works, a range of subjective opinions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ usage. Chenevix Trench redefined the ‘good’ dictionary in a similar way:

A Dictionary, then, according to that idea of it which seems to me alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language … It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray.
Richard Chenevix Trench, On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries (1857)

Trench’s lectures underpinned the making of the Oxford English Dictionary or, as its original title stated: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Its first part, covering the words in ‘A’ to ‘Ant’, edited by James Murray, appeared in 1884 and by 1900 it had reached words beginning with ‘I’. As Murray noted, the ‘first aim of the Dictionary’ was to ‘exhibit the actual variety of usage’—and to act as a neutral witness to language as it had been used from 1150 to the present day.

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A changing language: grammar and new words

It is received wisdom in many histories of the language that relatively little change took place between the English of 1800 and that of the twentieth century. The perceptions of nineteenth-century speakers might well have been rather different. Indeed, change on all levels of linguistic organization was apparent, whether in terms of spelling and sound, or syntax and meaning. While James Murray and his co-editors on the OED sought, as we have seen, to record language in all its forms with apparent equanimity, the rise of new tenses, or new words and meanings could, for other writers, prompt highly negative reaction—and overt resistance. Change from this perspective could be viewed less as evidence of the continued vitality of a living language, but as ‘degeneration’ and carelessness.

I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table-Talk (1833)

In the context of grammar one interesting nineteenth-century change was the rise of the progressive passive. This new construction—as in ‘the ship is being built’—was at first used alongside the older construction (‘Every body here is talking of a Steam Ship which is building at Leghorn’, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in a letter in 1819). But by the end of the century, the new form was clearly dominant. Popular estimations of correctness (and ‘good’ English) were nevertheless often at odds with evidence of actual usage. Resistance to the progressive passive continued to be expressed across the century, while the decline of the subjunctive after ‘if’ or ‘unless’ (‘if I were’/ ‘if I was’; ‘unless I be’/ ‘unless I am’) proved another source of prescriptive concern. The increasing use of got (‘it got broken’) was taken as further evidence of linguistic deterioration, as was the split infinitive, a construction which also emerges as a popular shibboleth at this time—in spite of its widespread use, as by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell:

In such conversation as was then going on, it is not necessary to accurately define the meaning of everything that is said.
Wives and Daughters (1867)

In the context of new words, a number of cross-currents are evident in the vocabulary, from the temporary presence of fashionable French words such as intime or bêtise (often used—at least intentionally—by the speaker or writer to signal a certain status or prestige), to the often polysyllabic and scholarly coinages which marked the language of science. Science (and the scientist as a practitioner of science) are in fact particularly emblematic of language and innovation in the nineteenth century. Scientists had previously been known as natural philosophers, but a new emphasis on empirical and inductive methodology led to a perceived need for change:

1840 WHEWELL Philos. Induct. Sci. I. Introd. 113 We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.

Innovations in terminology were widespread, indicating the increasing precision of scientific enquiry and investigation. Medical advances led to the introduction of anaesthesia and anaesthetics, of chloroform (as both noun and verb), as well as now fundamental tools such as the stethoscope. Types of illness and disease were also classified with a newly rigorous specificity, as in the striking prevalence of the suffix –itis to denote ‘inflammation of’. Appendicitis was first recorded in 1886, slightly too late for the relevant section of the OED which had appeared in the previous year, while other nineteenth-century coinages include conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and colitis. New terms such as biology, climatology, and ethnology (‘the science which treats of races and peoples, and their relations to one another’) also gave increasing prominence to –ology as a suffix, signalling newly specialized areas of study.

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The science of language

Science also changed approaches to language. If Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century could refer to the ‘dusty desarts of philology’ which he hoped his dictionary might be able to enliven with ‘verdure’ and ‘flowers’, nineteenth-century philology (‘the historical study of the phonology and morphology of languages’) instead marked out the scientific and empirical methods which increasingly characterized the study of language too. A range of  -ologies specific to language—such as dialectology, phonology, morphology, and of course lexicology (‘the branch of knowledge which treats of words, their form, history, and meaning’)—would all also make their appearance at this time. ‘I am a scientist of language’ as James Murray, editor in chief of the OED, affirmed. While popular works on language continued to appear, its formal study now required analytical knowledge and methodological (and systematic) approaches.

Further reading on nineteenth-century English

  • Richard Bailey, Nineteenth-Century English (1996)
  • Manfred Gorlach, English in Nineteenth-Century England (1999)
Lynda Mugglestone, ‘English in the nineteenth century’, in Mugglestone, ed., The Oxford History of English (2008), 274-304
  • Kenneth Phillips, Language and Class in Victorian England (1984)

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Where next with the OED Online?

  1. there’s a growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day. As well as this introduction to the nineteenth century, you can also read similar overviews of Old English and early modern English.
  2. you’ll find more on the nineteenth-century interest in dialects in Clive Upton’s overview of regional English, as well a growing series of articles on specific forms, including Cockney and Geordie.
  3. elsewhere in our Aspects of English section, you can read more on the influence of nineteenth-century scientific method on language in Jude Craft’s article on the language of genetics.

With subscriber access to the OED Online you can also search for entries originating in the nineteenth century—by date, usage, origin, region, and subject—using the Advanced Search option. To group entries by time period, use Advanced Search/date of entry or entry range. All results can be displayed as timelines (simply click on the link at the top of the results list), or you can browse the OED via the Timelines option.

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