Edited by George Justice

Austen’s English

The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing

By Janet Sorensen.
Cambridge University Press, 2000. x + 318 pages.
5 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $60.00.

Reviewed by Amy D’Antonio.

In The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing, Janet Sorensen reads glossaries, dictionaries, novels, and rhetoric manuals to investigate the complex relationships between structures of language and construction of national identities. Sorensen both synthesizes and moves beyond the wide range of scholarship bearing on her subject, informing her chronological close readings with post-colonial, feminist, and Marxian theory but never imposing jargon on her readers. While the entire study offers original insight into the processes by which language and identity interact, the epilogue on Jane Austen proves the value of Sorensen’s investigation of the “language-class-nation nexus.” Applying the theories developed throughout the study and foregrounding gender concerns, the epilogue concludes that Austen, long considered Samuel Johnson’s literary daughter and the most English of writers, exhibits a foreignness at the center of Englishness arising partly from the estrangement of England from English during the course of the imperial project.

Historicizing that estrangement, Sorensen identifies two visions of universal language generated by eighteenth century colonialism. While English imperialists envisioned a spatially transcendent linguistic structure allowing for infinite translation, Scottish cultural nationalists imagined a temporally transcendent structure linking marginalized native languages to an idealized past. Sorensen proposes a dialectic in which these visions of language construct each other while simultaneously constructing socially central and peripheral subjects along class and gender, rather than geographic, lines. She relocates the borders produced by colonial conflict between England and Scotland to examine the means by which standards of language divide not only countries, but also subjectivities, in a process that results in the doubled self of the colonized subject, and, in Austen’s case, of the woman writer.

Sorensen considers Alexander MacDonald as a case in point of the doubled subjectivity produced by linguistic colonialism. First assisting the imperial project of replacing Gaelic with English by compiling the first Gaelic/English glossary (1741), MacDonald later published a volume of poems in Gaelic celebrating national identity (1751). Emergent cultural nationalism subverted English characterizations of Gaelic as a weak, feminine language lacking equivalents for such masculine, public, and legal concepts as “General of the Mint.” Imperial glossaries manufactured Gaelic versions of such concepts while omitting domestic commonplaces like “torch” and “log” (44-5). Thus, spaces identified as female and Gaelic remained uncolonized and offered sites of resistance to a masculinized English language and identity.

Moving from the “Celtic periphery” to the English center, Sorensen analyzes Johnson’s famous Dictionary--from plan through preface, entries, examples, and post-publication critiques--to locate both Johnson’s characterization of language itself as female in its propensity for multiplying meanings, and his efforts to control this threatening capability. By disparaging language he considers feminine along with words he declares foreign or particular to tradespeople, Johnson aligns deviant women, foreigners, and working classes against a standard English language and identity. Like Johnson’s Dictionary, Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphry Clinker dissociates linguistic nationality from geography to define it according to class and gender. This strategy allows Smollett, a Scotsman, to claim a disembodied, universal English language and identity and to separate himself from the vulgar, domestic English spoken by his Celtic female characters.

Sorensen recognizes a crisis in the relationship between linguistic and national identities in Johnson and Smollett, whose “authoritative refiguring of class and gender linguistic distinctions as instead cultural, ethnic, and/or national set the stage for the revaluation of “regional” languages, such as Scots.” Writers like Adam Smith and Hugh Blair wishes for an aesthetic immediacy unavailable within an abstract English language refined to the standards of taste but incapable of affecting the senses. In their revaluation, Gaelic appeared not primitive but originary; not na´ve but uncorrupt; not feminine, weak, and multiple but masculine, strong, and direct in its imagined reference to singular objects.

Unlike MacDonald’s cultural nationalism, the aesthetic view of language considered Gaelic to define rather than to resist English national identity. The progression Sorensen traces from “Scotophobia” to “Celtomania” culminates with the idea that English language and identity derive from Celtic originals. To illustrate this new conception, Sorensen cites the word “London,” which had long been an arbitrary abstraction to English-speakers, but which any Highland child would still associate with its original meaning of “city on the marsh.” Thus, by the end of the century, the Celtic periphery gave England its own center as the linguistic origins of English were best taught by, instead of to, Highland children. Sorensen combines entertaining examples with rigorous scholarship to demonstrate how Gaelic became the language of English nationalism. Moreover, she locates in Austen’s work, “the ways in which central and marginal language practices and theories worked both to define and to de-center [the] center.” Together, these accomplishments distinguish Sorensen’s study as one of the broadest in scope and best informed of recent investigations into the function of Austen’s work in the empire, and of the function of the empire in Austen.

Amy D'Antionio is a doctoral student at Arizona State University.   

JASNA News v.18, no. 2, Spring 2002, p. 18

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