Victorian Language

by Hardeep Kataria

The fact of the matter: “Nobody speaks at all like the characters in any novel, play or film. Life would be intolerable if they did; and novels, plays or films would be intolerable if the characters spoke as people do in life” (Abercrombie 1965).

So what was the real way of speech?
Fiction was generally thought to be an accurate portrayal of reality; “true life” (Chapman 1). It was unfavorable if it stressed credulity too far. Therefore, fiction is our main source of information; it is our main source to the reality of speech for the Victorians. Greater mobility and expansion of communication of the Victorian era brought together regional groups, thus increasing the complexity of the variations in the English language. Consequently, pronunciation evolved as an indicator of social prestige (Chapman 6-8). Two categories of speech developed: Standard and Non-Standard speech.

Formation of Standard Speech vs. Non-Standard Speech
The Education Act of 1870 established the school as a ‘melting pot’ for upper and middle class children and the speech boundary had to be resolved. Thus a uniform accent (Standard speech) was created and pupils who refused to accept this new accent or who could not adapt to this new way of speech were severely punished. Peer pressure was also an issue because the new boy would have to adapt to the new form of speech in order for his peers to accept him or to merely avoid bullies (Chapman 12).

Non-Standard Speech
This type of speech was also synonymous with lower class slang, “cockney” or the way in which the ‘uneducated’ communicated, specific to the East End (Chapman 19). The infamous “cockney” was native to the East End, as remains today. Cockney dialect allowed spelling and pronunciation deviances; it was often referred to as a “corruption” (Chapman 19) of a much more defined language and was used in humor, pathos or regional situations.

Cockney deviated from Standard Speech mainly through pronunciation. As observed in numerous novels by Charles Dickens, the lower classes adapted to the cockney style. This includes,

However, although cockney was consistently referred to as the more “uneducated” form of speech, one could decipher between a person who was educated and compelled by pronunciation to adapt cockney, and one who had not been educated in the verb formation of the English language.

Applications of Non-Standard Speech:
For example, in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Boffin consistently uses “don’t” where he should use “doesn’t.” Indicative of his inability to become socially mobile, he reveals his lack of education through his language; “…because the Court don’t think it…” (Dickens 631).

The speech of an illiterate is accurately represented through one of Dickens’ villains, Rogue Riderhood, Our Mutual Friend.

Not only were members of the working class desperate to climb the social ladder but also attempted to impress the upper class. Parallel to dropping the “h’s” where correctly needed, servants and other members of the working class would often add superfluous “h’s” in effort to impress their masters. For instance, an “off” would become a “hoff” to feign the representation of an education (Phillipps 131).

Origin of select terms
According to Phillipps, various terms have survived several centuries to reach the Victorian Era. For example, words such as “ ‘orrizon” as opposed to “horizon” would have been recognized by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). Other words have also survived from William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Much Ado about Nothing and also from Tudor Times (1485-1603).

An example of contemporary cockney speech from a popular serial Eastenders: The clip is called, “You’re not my mother!”

Standard Speech
The aristocrats and gentry spoke Standard Speech yet still formed their own slang. However, this slang was not pervasive to the English language, as cockney was thought to be, but instead was primarily regional and an upper class prerogative.

In Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, acquaintances shout, “Mis-ter and Mis-sis Podsnap!” (19). This example evidently reveals an exaggeration of pronunciation. The Veneerings’ exclamation “Mis-ter Twemlow!” (18) also supports this type of syllable accentuation, along with “Ven-eerings!” proclaimed in a French accent.

Occupational Speech (Middle Class)

Therefore, language in the Victorian era was important in ranking members of classes and occupations. Language had the potential to assess and reflect upon one’s regional, educational, occupational and family background.

The distinctions in speech amongst three different social ranks are evident in the following excerpt from an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

Episode 1, Clip 3.

Works Cited

Chapman, Raymond. Forms of Speech in Victorian Fiction. New York: Longman, 1994.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. 1865. Introduction and notes Adrian Poole. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Phillipps, K.C. Language and Class in Victorian England. Ed. David Crystal. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc, 1984.