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  • English Fiction and the Evolution of Language, 1850–1914 by Will Abberley
  • Donald S. Hair (bio)
English Fiction and the Evolution of Language, 1850–1914, by Will Abberley; pp. vii + 234. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, £67.00, $99.99.

In his conclusion to English Fiction and the Evolution of Language, 1850–1914, Will Abberley quotes Hans Aarsleff’s adage that “To the historical understanding, the pseudo-science of an age may be as important as its science” (qtd. 164). For the study of the evolution of language, Abberley argues, scholars would do well to keep Aarsleff’s observation in mind: the subject was poor in documentary and empirical evidence—about the origins of language, for instance—and faced contradictory evidence about its evolution. In addition, there was no consensus about the directions in which language ought to develop. Speculations were full of contradictions, as Abberley shows again and again, and work on the evolution of language was often as imaginative as the fiction of the period. Fiction, in fact, explored directions more open to it than to philology, which (as the latter’s suffix indicates) was constrained by its claim to be a science. And even though the fiction was indeed the product of imagination, novels and short stories had a use and a value, derived, Abberley argues, from fiction’s “dialogue with speculative philology” (5). It was “a critical testing ground for ideas from the science of language rather than merely a passive reflector of them” (173).

Language awareness was very much a part of the culture of the period, thanks to the growth of philology in the early part of the century. The historical and comparative work on languages, beginning in the late eighteenth century, resulted in the preparation of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, based “on historical principles” and documentary evidence (as the dictionary’s full title claims). But that work did not answer larger questions about language: its origins (imitative or expressive), its nature (instinctive or conventional), its defining medium (oral or written), how it means (synchronic or diachronic), how it changes (a blind process, as in Charles Darwin, or teleological), the changes that were desirable or undesirable (even if those could be agreed upon), and the extent to which human beings control language (or find themselves controlled by it). All of those questions were never isolated ones; they had an important bearing on just about every other concern of the time, such as capitalism and socialism, colonialism and imperialism, politics and education, nation and race, and even spiritualism and emerging technologies like the phonograph. Fiction grappled with those ideas [End Page 129] when philology was hesitant to do so. It is Abberley’s thesis that popular fiction could go well beyond the “empirical testability” of theories to explore “unrecorded pasts and unknown futures,” test various ideas, offer possibilities, and suggest directions of inquiry to the science of philology. But such free-ranging imaginings were a doubtful gift: they popularized theories of language evolution, but they also, as Abberley demonstrates repeatedly, “destabilized them, exposing the contradictions in placing language under a microscope” (2).

Abberley’s materials are wide-ranging and amorphous, and the problem of how to arrange them must have seemed overwhelming; however, he does organize his argument by using a basic binary: “opposing discourses” (6). One, which he calls “language progressivism,” “saw meaning as an artificial production, something forged by humans as they gained control over chaotic nature” (6). The other, which he labels “language vitalism,” understands meaning as “an organic essence derived from a primordial epoch of creation” (6). The binary is a later version of the two dominant views in the early part of the century: one derived from John Locke, for whom names were conventional and arbitrary, and the other from the Germano-Coleridgian tradition, in which words are (to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge) “living powers” because of the God-given gift of speech (as in Adam’s naming of the beasts). Curiously enough, Abberley does not mention Coleridge, in spite of the cultural importance of Aids to Reflection (1825). The two thinkers who anchor Abberley’s binary are Herbert Spencer and Max M...


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