Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   Leave a comment

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.


As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.


The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.


While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.


001 (2)

Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;


… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.


His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.


What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?


Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.


The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.


O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’


The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.


Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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