Blog Archives

Looking for ‘Wild’s’ grammar…

At the moment I am transcribing and analysing nineteenth- century family letters from New England. In one of the letters a schoolboy mentions Wild’s grammar. So far I have not succeeded in finding details about this book. It may have been printed in America, but at the time grammars were also often imported from Great Britain. If anyone can give me more information about this book I would be much obliged.

Bas van Elburg

Benjamin Franklin’s subjunctive/indicative confusion

While I was looking at the use of the subjunctive in letters by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestly for a paper for the conference Patriotism(e) & Prescriptivism(e) in Toronto, this August, I came across the following. In the second edition of his Rudiments of English Grammar Priestley discusses the decline of the subjunctive in favour of the indicative:

This conjunctive form of verbs, though our forefathers paid a pretty strict regard to it, is much neglected by many of our best writers […] So little is this form of verbs attended to, that few writers are quite uniform in their own practice with respect to it. We even, sometimes, find both the forms of a verb in the same sentence, and in the same construction (Priestley 1768: 119-120)

I found precisely this in one of Benjamin Franklin’s letters, where he uses both the indicative and the inflectional subjunctive forms with two verbs which refer to the same subject, combined by a coordinating conjunction.

Mr. Joseph Crellius is gone to Holland and I suppose may call at London before he returns, and settle his Daughter’s Affair [emphasis mine] (letter to William Strahan, 6 December 1750 – American Philosophical Society)

Was Franklin really confused here? Or, as this is the only instance of this I have found, is it a transcription error? The letter is available on the website The Papers of Benjamin Franklin


How tall was Robert Lowth?

In the spring of the year 1772, James Boswell called upon Robert Lowth, and, as he wrote in his journal, found him to be "a neat, judicious little man in his conversation with me" (ed. Wimsatt and Pottle 1960:112). But what does "little" mean in this context? Does this mean that Lowth was not very tall? Read more »

Notation of dates in England vs America

Lyda Fens-de Zeeuw is very curious to learn more about why/when/(how) the notation of dates in letters became different in U.S. English as opposed to British English (or vice versa??), i.e. mm-dd-year vs. dd-mm-year. What was common in England in the Early Modern period? and in America? And how did this develop later? Since when(exactly?) was there a structurally different way of notation? (Her own corpus of the eighteenth-century American-born grammarian Lindley Murray shows dd-mm-year exclusively). Read more »

Peter Green and the English of Tristan da Cunha

At the moment Bas van Elburg is doing research into the English of Pieter Groen (Peter Green), a Dutchman who spent most of his life on the island of Tristan da Cunha (Atlantic Ocean) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With hardly any formal education Pieter Groen boarded ships at an early age to hunt seals until he was shipwrecked off the coast of Tristan da Cunha in 1836. He decided to stay on the island and lived in a small community of people who, by the time of his arrival, had already developed an English dialect consisting of features from several British input varieties. A number of letters written by Pieter Groen in his later life, however, show a variety that is close to standard British English. A possible explanation for this is that he was an autodidact. Bas van Elburg would like to know if other cases exist of self-taught persons who acquired second (standard) language learning in similar circumstances.

New book on letter-writing manuals

Marina Dossena has brought this new book to our attention: Letter-Writing Manuals : From Antiquity to the Present : Historical and Bibliographic Studies, edited by Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell. Columbia (S.C.) : The University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Nähesprache & Distanzsprache

Incorporating German theory in Anglo-American historical linguistic research: the Nähesprache / Distanzsprache-model.

Read more »

Johnson correspondent Miss Hill Boothby

Paul Ruxin asks if someone has any letters or other examples of the handwriting of Miss Hill Boothby, the 18th century corespondent of Dr. Samuel Johnson. He has recently acquired a first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, inscribed, "miss Hill Boothby from the author, and wishes to determine whether it is in her handwriting.

Vestigial second “l” in the handwriting of Elizabeth Vesey

This example of vestigial second "l" was sent to me by Anni Sairo. It is from a letter by Elizabeth Vesey (1715–1791). It shows a vestigial second "l" the word "shall" in the last line "I shall have a letter…"

example double 'l' Elizabeth Vesey

Anni describes Vesey’s hand as dynamic and very careless, features that would certainly also adequately describe Priestley’s. He was known to dash off letters to fellow scientist right after the completion of an experiment and this haste shows in the handwriting.

In Priestley’s case however, the feature also seems to occur in letters that do not appear to have been written hastily and appear to be written in a fairly neat hand.

Double “l” in Eighteenth-century Manuscripts

Transcribing the manuscript letters of Joseph Priestley, I notice that, at least to modern standards, he has a rather peculiar way of writing word-final double "l" in such words as "all" and "shall". The first "l" is a fully formed letter, the second one is invariably vestigial. For the most part, this second "l" has no discernable loop and does not nearly reach the top of the line, making it more akin to a lowercase "’r" or lowercase "e" than anything else.

I am not sure whether this is a feature of the eighteenth century English writing system or whether it is an idiosyncracy of Priestley’s. Since I’ve not been able to find any literature about this ‘feature’, I would be interested to find whether anyone else working with eighteenth century letters has also observed this.

Here is an example with "shall" in a letter to the Dutch chemist Martinus van Marum (dated  14 Septeber 1785):

JP to MvM 14_09_1785