Sociolinguistic Studies, Vol 5, No 1 (2011)

Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and Wives and Daughters. A sociolinguistic study with special reference to the representation of nonstandard dialect

Gunnel Melchers
Issued Date: 26 Apr 2012


This paper is an attempt to assess the representation of non-standard dialect in nineteenth-century speech communities as created and described in two works of fiction by the same writer: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) and Wives and Daughters (1866). The reasons for choosing these particular works are various: they exhibit a wider range of society than most other contemporary novels; they should reflect regional/nonstandard usage not too distant in time from the authentic speech documented by the Survey of English Dialects (SED) (Orton et al., 1962-71); their author is generally acknowledged to be a keen observer and known to be conversant with various layers of society (Uglow, 1993:47f.). Her linguistic reliability was recognized by Joseph Wright in that he used two of her novels (Mary Barton and Sylvia’s Lovers), exemplifying two different dialect areas, as data for specimens in his monumental English Dialect Dictionary (EDD). This was an honour bestowed on comparatively few writers of fiction. In Gaskell’s case we are also greatly helped by her own comments on language in letters as well as her literary texts. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that great caution should be taken in interpreting patterns of social/ regional variation based on data from a work of fiction. The author may, for one thing, have had a particular purpose in using nonstandard features, which could be a distractor in the representation of authentic speech.

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DOI: 10.1558/sols.v5.i1.59


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