What are the Characteristic Features of Nineteenth Century English?

Words like altimeter, sonometer and voltmeter were coined to name instruments for the measurements of physical realities like heat, sound and electricity, and words like ohm, ampere, centigrade and joule were coined to name certain other related concepts in physics.

Words like photosynthesis, chlorophyll, spermatozoon, bacterium, leucocyte, symbiosis, and chromosome were coined to name concepts in biology and words like Jurassic, mesozoic and bauxite were coined in geology.

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Researchers in the field of medicine identified and studied a number of diseases not clearly known before and so words like gastritis, laryngitis, kleptomania, cirrhosis, neuritis, haemophilia, diphtheria, aphasia, claustrophobia, and beri beri were coined to name those diseases.

Another manner in which the English language during the nineteenth century augmented its scientific vocabulary was to make new words with the help of prefixes from Greek and neo-Latin, prefixes like micro-, ante-, intra-, meta-, mono-, hypo-, para-, tele-, multi-, retro- and semi-. Many of these Greek and neo-Latin prefixes were used for the first time during the nineteenth century.

It is possible to find that some of them were in use in English earlier also but it was for the first time in the nineteenth century that these prefixes were used on a large scale for coining the vocabulary needed for science and medicine.

Borrowings:

As the horizon of knowledge enlarged itself and the intellectual and cultural contact with the rest of the world increased, a number of words were borrowed by English. The word vodka was borrowed from Russian, words like vendetta, mafia, salami, studio, replica, and inferno were borrowed from Italian; words like guerrilla, bonanza, and cafeteria were borrowed from French; and words like poodle, lager, leitmotif, kindergarten, seminar, and hinterland were borrowed from German.

Because of its colonial contact with India, English borrowed words like thug, khaki, cashmere, pyjama, chutney, gymkhana and polo from Hindustani, and words like nirvana, yoga and swastika were borrowed from Sanskrit.

Some words like shoplift and housekeep were coined by the process of back-formation and many other words like bus, vet, van, exam, lab, photo, fan, pants were made by the process of clipping.

Archaic and Obsolete Words:

(i) Many words which sound archaic and fossilized these days were freely used as readily acceptable items of vocabulary during the nineteenth century. Whence, whither, hence, hither, thence, thither, wherein and wherefore, for example, are no longer in use except as archaic items in poetry. But as is evident from the following extracts from the essay “Signs of the Times” written by Carlyle (1795-1881), these words were freely used during the nineteenth century.

We are no longer instinctively driven to apprehend … what is good and lovely, but rather to enquire, as on-lookers, how it is produced, whence it comes, whither it goes.

Of our “Theories of Taste”, as they are called, wherein the deep, infinite … love of wisdom is “explained”… why should we say anything?

Like Sir Hudibras, for every why we must have a wherefore.

(ii) The use of for in the sense of because was much more frequent then than it is these days. This is evident from the following extracts taken from the same essay by Carlyle.

For it is the force of circumstances that does every thing; the force of one man can do nothing.

For the plain truth, very plain, we think, is that minds are opposed to minds in quite a different way.

This use of for in this sense is becoming rare in present-day English.

Grammatical Features:

In his book on the history of the English language, Burnley (1992:299-300) observes that “by comparison with earlier periods the changes in the English language since 1800 have been relatively superficial”. This is very largely true, particularly if we take the grammar of English into account.

This should not be taken to mean, however, that the grammatical features of nineteenth century English are identical with those of English during the eighteenth century. Some of the grammatical features on the basis of which nineteenth century English can be differentiated from eighteenth century English are as follows:

(i) It was during the nineteenth century that the use of the prop word one(s) in place of nouns started being used very widely. This prop word was in use even during the period of Renaissance in Britain. Several instances of this word can be found in Shakespeare’s writings in expressions like “such a one”. The use of this prop word with the article the before it in sentences like the ones listed below seems to have appeared in the nineteenth century for the first time.

This car is the one I want.

That book is the one I want.

(ii) A similar use of this word in interrogative structures in sentences like the following is again a characteristic feature of nineteenth century English.

Which one do you want?

Which one is yours?

(iii) The use of the verb be in place of the verb have for indicating the present perfect form of an intransitive verb of movement was in wide use during the Renaissance period in Britain. The following are some examples from Elizabethan writings.

(a) I am come in good time.

(b) Rafe, my boy is run away…

(c) How insolent of late he is become,

How proud, how peremptory, and unlike himself?

The use of the verb be in such verb groups to indicate that an action has just been completed became less frequent in the eighteenth century but it was still in use. The following are some examples taken from eighteenth century texts in English.

We are now become so much Englishmen … that we are no longer citizens of the world.

I am grown as nice as the devil in my eating.

However, this use of the verb be in place of the verb have completely disappeared in the nineteenth century.

(iv) During Shakespeare’s age articles could be used not only before nouns but also before nominalized non-finite clauses. The following are some examples.

But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed

One drop of Christian blood,…

… on the reading it he chang’d almost into another man.

He alt’red much upon the hearing it.

As is evident from the following examples, this use of article continued during the eighteenth century as well.

I cannot but think that the using and introducing foreign terms of art… is an intolerable grievance.

I cannot approve of their way of refining …a turning English into French, rather than a refining of English by French …

Such non-finite clauses preceded by an article are not found in nineteenth century writings.

(v) During the Renaissance period the present indefinite form of the verb was very often used in contexts in which only the present progressive form of the verb can be used these days.

What do you read, my Lord?

King: Laertes, was your father dear to you?

Laertes: Why ask you this?

Who knocks?

Goes the king hence today?

What ails Faustus?

This Renaissance use of the present indefinite form of the verb was more or less abandoned during the eighteenth century and the present progressive form was widely used to indicate the continuity of an action. The nineteenth century is known for a wide use of the passive form of the present continuous tense of verbs as in the following sentences.

Your work is being done.

The book is being written.

Earlier the notion of passivity in such contexts was expressed with the help of active constructions only. Sentences like “The house is building” and “Your shirt is cleaning very well” are active in form but such active constructions were the only ways of expressing the passive form of an action in progress.

The use of passive constructions like “The house is being built” started towards the end of the eighteenth century and was widely accepted during the nineteenth century. The English language had to wait until the twentieth century for the use of perfective durative constructions like “The house has been being built”.