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Voicing imperial subjects in British literature: a corpus analysis of literary dialect, 1768-1929

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • David Brown
Publication date2016
Number of pages296
Awarding Institution
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This study investigates nonstandard dialect as it used in fictional dialogue. The works included in it were produced by British authors between 1768 and 1929 – a period marking the expansion and height of the British Empire. One of the project’s aims is to examine the connections among dialect representation and the imperial project, to investigate how ventriloquizing African diasporic, Chinese, and Indian characters works with related forms of characterization to encode ideologies and relations of power. A related aim is to explore the emergence and evolution of these literary dialects over time and to compare their structures as they are used to impersonate different communities of speakers.

In order to track such patterns of representation, a corpus was constructed from the dialogue of 126 novels, plays, and short stories. That dialogue was then annotated for more than 200 lexical, morphological, orthographic, and phonological features. That data enable statistical analyses that model variation in the voicing of speakers and how those voicings change over time. This modeling demonstrates, for example, an increase in the frequency of phonological features for African diasporic dialogue and a countervailing decrease in the frequency and complexity of coded features generally for Indian dialogue.

Trends like these that are surfaced though quantitative methods are further contextualized using qualitative, archival data. The analysis ultimately rests on connecting patterns of representation to changes in the imperial political economy, evolving language ideologies that circulate in the Anglophone world, and shifts in sociocultural anxieties that crosscut race and empire. The combined quantitative and qualitative analyses, therefore, expose representational systems – the apparatuses that propagate structures and the social attitudes that accrue to those structures. It further demonstrates that in such propagation, structures and attitudes are complementary.