Book Review: ‘Strange Vernaculars: How eighteenth-century slang, cant, provincial languages, and nautical jargon became English’ by Bill Jones

By Bill Jones, published January 2021


English in the eighteenth century was being invaded by ‘alien’ languages and dialects, and it is these which Janet Sorensen analyses in Strange Vernaculars.

She focuses on three ‘languages’ in her study: the ‘cant’ of the criminal underworld, the provincial dialects of, especially, the labouring classes, and finally the ‘nautical jargon’ of sailors.

It is part three of Strange Vernaculars which will be of particular interest to readers of The Mariner’s Mirror. Here Sorensen continues her analysis of the ‘provincial’ to focus on a highly specific example of ‘linguistic otherness’, the dialect (‘jargon’) of mariners.

Strange Vernaculars makes wide claims for the importance of canting, provincial and maritime language as outward manifestations of the elements which are to construct the emerging ‘British nation’. These reflect the large changes in society: the impact of Britain worldwide, including slavery, and the increasing dominance of Britain as a maritime nation.

The author is impressively well read in both primary source materials (often obscure and ephemeral), and in the extensive critical literature of language and sociolinguistics. The result is a highly detailed, and densely referenced, work, which does not make for an easy read, but makes challenging and well-argued claims.

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Filed under: Eighteenth Century
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea | Miscellaneous

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