New letter by Lowth

A new letter by Robert Lowth (1710-1787) has come to light. Read more about it here.

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Fluency in an English letter from Queen Wilhemina

Here is Jiayan Xu’s first blogpost:

During our visit to the Dutch Family Royal Archives in The Hague, I looked at one of the letters of Queen Wilhemina, intending to see how good her English was at that time. On 23 December 1896, she wrote a letter to Miss Saxton Winter (1857-1936), who was her English governess, and she appears to have written very fluent English.

Wilhelmina, two years after she wrote the letter (source: wikipedia

First, her sentence structure is comparatively complex, such as the use of adverbial clause of concession in the beginning: “Although I am sending you a card, I must just write you a very happy X mas”. There are also other complex sentences, such as it-cleft sentences for emphasis, as in “It is also for me a wide blame to know that you have no more helped me …”.

Second, almost all the spelling in the letter is almost entirely correct, except that she spelt describtion  for description, which might show that she was still in the process of learning English writing. (She was about sixteen at the time.) Another example of this is that some English words like handy and hearty in the letter do not have the meaning that we find the in OED. According to the OED, handy first appeared in 1673, meaning “A wooden pail, small tub, or (occas.) dish with an upright handle on one side; a piggin”; hearty has a list of meanings in the dictionary: as a noun, it refers to “an affectionate form of address”, e.g. “my hearty”). Apparently in Queen Wilhemina’s letter, hearty and handy seem to have the meaning of small heart and hand. I would consider this as an example of Dutch interference, which has diminutives such as handje and heartje. Therefore her writing seems still influenced by her first language and includes some interesting Dutchisms.

Wilhemina’s use of short forms not only shows her intimate relationship with the addressee, but also demonstrates that her English writing is very skilled. For example, she used the ampersand, as in “… for you & that both your mother & sister may be well …”. Furthermore, in the OED (online edition, s.v. “Xmas”), the list of the uses of Xmas contains five entries (from 1551-1875). Thus the abbreviated form Xmas had already been used well before this letter, which demonstrates at the same time that the 16-year-old former Dutch queen had already been very skilled in English writing. X-mas appears twice in this letter, though in the closing formula the complete form Christmas is still used, which seems to some extent formulaic.

Additionally, though people may consider two superlatives grammatically wrong today, I personally do not think most dearest in the opening of this letter a mistake. Evidence can be found already in the sixteenth century, when Shakespeare wrote in his play Julius Caesar “the most unkindest cut of all”. Although we need to take into account that in the course of several centuries English grammar changed and that double superlatives are no longer considered grammatically correct in standard English, it seems to me that this use of double superlatives by Wilhelmina expresses closeness with Miss Saxon Winter.

Overall, the 16-year-old former Dutch queen Wilhemina, as an L2 English learner, wrote very fluent English at that time, including the use of abbreviations, complex sentences and a deliberate exploitation of what is strictly speaking incorrect grammar. In this light the presence of a number of apparent Dutchisms is very interesting indeed.

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Disappointment strikes: NOT a new letter by Jane Austen

Last week, the Mail Online wrote that a “Previously unseen letter by Jane Austen where she first writes about Pride and Prejudice goes on public display for the first time”.  The letter is described as a “handwritten note, which lay undiscovered in a box file for 60 years, will be exhibited at Torquay Museum in Devon ahead of a planned auction”. The museum hopes to fetch £200,000 for it.

Jane Austen’s Letter 17 (source: Mail Online)

But what do they mean by “previously unseen”? It is not a new letter: the letter is Letter 17 in Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s correspondence (4th ed., 2011), and it also appears in Jo Modert’s facsimile edition of the letters (1990). No new letters by Jane Austen have come to light for a long time now, so the expectations raised by the announcement were sorely disappointed.

So who decided to announce it like this? The Mail Online? Or the Torquay Museum in Devon? It is certainly a good way of making potential buyers interested. But Austenites will be disappointed.

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Sparroy, Toadelcrancz, Il Giotto, and Goatus esq.

And here is Sopio Zhgenti’s first blogpost:

Virginia Woolf’s letters are a fascinating source for many things, but also, as I discovered for her use of nicknames, which we find for many of her correspondents including herself, in the opening and closing formulas to the letters.


Instead of formal names or regular first names, Virginia Woolf chose to adopt nicknames. But not for everybody: the nicknames are only found in letters addressed the people she was close to. For these, she chose not randomly created names but animals. Every close friend was given the name of an animal, and she had one for herself as well. Sometimes she even created compounds, for instance Sparroy, with which she referred to herself, which seems to be some mixture of sparrow and monkey. As Nicolson, the editor of her letters, wrote: “She creates a menagerie of aliases for herself – Sparroy (sparrow + monkey?)” (1975: xviii).

All this suggests that Virginia Woolf differentiated between two types of letters: formal and informal ones, based on who she wrote to, very close friends/relatives or mere acquaintances. The choice of nicknames for her friends can be interpreted as an act of positive politeness. In her use of formulas, Virginia Woolf sticks to established norms of letter writing. Her letters mostly begin with my dear/dearest + addressee and end with Yr/Yrs. Affect. Consequently it is easy to see how her letters vary from being very formal to informal. In letters to Henry Newbolt (L.41 January 1902) and Violet Dickinson (L.42; 1902) for example, we find the following opening and closing formulas:

  • Dear Mr. Newbolt … yrs very sincerely, Virginia Stephen.
  • My woman/yr. lover, Sparroy.


Henry John Newbolt was a poet who did not have very close relationship with Virginia Woolf, whereas Violet Dickinson was her best friend and even more than a friend:  “it seems that the first person with whom she forged an intimate relationship was Violet Dickinson” (Koulouris 2011:100). The special closeness Virginia felt for Violet is clear from the way in which she addressed her in the letters, where we find My Violet/My child/My beloved woman/My woman as openings and  Yr Aff., AVS/Yr. Sparroy/Yr. Sp. Etc. It is also interesting to see how Virginia’s attitude changes in the course of her life. In the very first letter her opening and closing formulas are My dear Miss Dickinson/Yours sincerely, Virginia Stephen, while in the second letter we already find My Dear Violet and Yrs aff’ly VS. In  her eighth letter where Violet is addressed as My dear aunt, and Virginia signs herself Yr loving Sparroy.

Other interesting figures are Thoby who was Virginia’s elder brother and George Duckworth who was her elder half-brother. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

After the deaths of Mrs Stephen and Stella there was no controlling George Duckworth, her elder half-brother, who would prowl by night, and pounce. He was his sister’s “first lover” according to Virginia’s memoir “22 Hyde Park Gate”:

Creaking stealthily, the door [of her bedroom] opened; treading gingerly someone entered. “Who?” I cried. “Don’t be frightened”, George whispered. “And don’t turn on the light, oh beloved. Beloved—” and he flung himself on my bed, and took me in his arms. (Moments of Being)

Though he fondled his sister by night, by day he ridiculed her appearance and spoke of her as “the poor goat’ (ODNB)

From her letters it is obvious that she did not have as close relationship with George as with Thoby. Nevertheless, she signed her letters to both men with your old goat, as if she did not want to differentiate between them. But differences are very obvious in the content of the letters. Virginia wrote fewer letters to George than to Thoby, though all the time she used the same opening and closing formulas: My dear old BarYour old goat.  (Old Bar was another nickname, but it needs further investigation to find out whether the name signifies anything or not.) Whereas Thoby was someone with whom she shared her ideas about Greek as well as about everyday life, she sometimes even called him your highness.

Other examples of Virginia Wool’s amazing name compounds are the following. In one of the letters to Emma Vaughan, she addressed her cousin with beloved Toadelkanz (L. 31; 1900), a combination of Rosencrantz and Toad, though usually she abbreviates the name to Toad. In a joint letter to Emma and Margaret Vaughan she started with beloved animals and cousins, and she ended by calling herself “Giotto”: Your expectant cousin, Il Giotto (L 32;  1900).

Virginia Woolf’s use of nicknames for herself and her most intimate correspondents is very interesting. . From social psychology it is known that nicknames serve as a form of

“social control, contributing to socialization, marking group boundaries, building camaraderie, catalyzing joking, conveying discontent, cathartically venting frustrations, equalizing social exchanges and adjusting to labelling. Although the nicknaming and collateral social processes we encountered were not the product of formal planning, they are a complex and highly organized set of micro political activities. In the future, nicknames should be thought of as key symbols that can unlock many meanings when they are properly interpreted” (Fortado 1998:13)

In some cases, Virginia’s choice of nicknames was obviously determined by some literary characters, authors or painters. In other cases she hide herself behind forms like goatus esq.Sparroy, Kangaroo, Wallaby.  According to Fowler (2012: 154), “In the Bloomsbury circle, nicknames were both abundant and polymorphous”. In time, her nicknames transformed into fictional names, so from Goat we get Goatus esq. etc.: nicknames, according to Lee (1996:iii), nicknames “would then in turn be nicknamed, and the animals would reproduce by a literary parthenogesis into yet more beats. So Goat or ‘the goat’ becomes Goatus esq. Capra, Il Giotto; Emma Vaughan’s ‘Toad’ would be ‘dearest Reptile’ or Todkins, Toadlebinks or Toadelcrancz; The Ape might be the Apes, or Singe or Singes”.

Nobody will probably be able to say what made Virginia Woolf choose these nicknames or what do they signified for her, but one thing is certain: opening and closing formulas as well as the names that she created are an important feature in her correspondence. They determine the degree of closeness to people, dividing her correspondents up into different social categories. For Virginia, opening and closing formulas are not some established rule of letter writing: they are a source for creativity, as well as a source for fiction.


Fortado, Bruce, 1998, Interpreting Nicknames: Micro political portal. Journal of Management studies, 35:1,

Fowler, Alastair, 2012, Literary Names, Personal names in English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kolouris, Theodore, 2011, Hellenism and Loss in the work of Virginia Woolf. Ashgate.

Lee, Hermione,  1996, Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nicolson, Nigel (ed.), 1975, The Fight of the Mind, The letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1888-1912 (Virginia Stephen). London: The Hogarth Press, .

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Children’s letters from EBB

Here is Christel Brouwer’s first blogpost:

While looking through the Browning Letters corpus (Baylor) I found two very interesting children’s letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB). The first letter was written in 1814 by an 8-year-old EBB, and it contains the following message:

Madam I request you to accept this little story for 3s & if you would buy this yourself & write copys to be sold for the public. I am Madam your most obedient humble Servant Elizabeth Barrett  You owe me 8d for other thing.

EBB at about 9 years old (source: Brownings’ Corrspondence)

The letter is addressed to her mother Mary Moulton-Barrett. According to the Brownings’ Correspondence, Mary took pride in EBB’s accomplishments and spent much time copying her daughter’s poems and other literary endeavours. Mary Barrett did not write professionally, but she did write long, chatty personal letters and kept a journal. She put a lot of effort into the schooling of her children, which can be deduced from comments she made on EBB’s childhood writings. It appears also that she played a sort of game with EBB, serving as “publisher” for some of her daughter’s writings. This children’s letter fits in with the alleged publisher-game, as the contents are written as if EBB is talking to a publisher about money.

The second child letter from EBB is from 1816, when she was 10 years old. She wrote it to her grandmother Elizabeth Moulton, and it contains the following message:

I dedicate this little volume to her whose smile ever cheers my endeavours to please, to her who shines an ornament to her sex, and all around her– To her, my dearest Grandmama, these pages are inscribed, with the greatest gratitude and esteem by her affectionate child Elizabeth B Barrett.

The bond between Elizabeth and EBB was strong, and according to Brownings’ Correspondence she gave EBB grandmotherly advice. Though she was occasionally distressed by her granddaughter’s pursuit of scholarly knowledge at the expense of more feminine activities, their love was deep. When Elizabeth passed away, her son Edward found a letter assigning £4,000 “to my darling Elizabeth with all my trinkets I wish it were more for her sake”. The letter above also shows the love EBB had for her grandmother.

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English by Dutch people

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve described a project which studies this use of English by Late Modern native speakers of Dutch. Here is a very interesting example of such a letter, in a blogpost by Marlies Reitsma, another student in my MA course on the sociolinguistics of Late Modern English letters:

It is not surprising to find letters in Dutch archives written by Dutch people – but an English archive might not be the first place that comes to mind where one would find such letters. And yet about 38,000 Dutch letters written bduring the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were found just there, in the archives of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA), Kew. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, privateers conquered enemy ships and seized their cargo, which they could keep as loot when the rules for privateering were adhered to. In order to decide whether this was the case, the HCA confiscated all papers on board the ships: this is how the letters ended up in the archives. They were rediscovered in the1980s, and since then, many letters have been transcribed for the Brieven als Buit/Letters as Loot corpus, initiated by Professor Marijke van der Wal.

Source: Wikipedia

As Marijke van der Wal’s assistant, I transcribe a selection of the 38,000 letters every week, which are usually written in Dutch. However, a while ago I also transcribed an English letter by a Dutchman, a certain Mister Roombergh (this letter has not yet been included in the online Brieven als Buit/Letters as Loot corpus):

Brief Roombergh

Even though I think it’s safe to say that Roombergh’s knowledge of English was quite good, his spelling and choice of words sometimes show that Dutch was his mother tongue.

Address James Barry

For example, the word sent in to sent some chests is spelled with a <t> instead of a <d>. In Dutch, final /d/ gets devoiced: the word paard (“horse”) for instance, is pronouned as paart, even though the word is spelled with a <d>. So we have an example of final devoicing in Roombergh’s letter.

The word maidhave in that any misfortune maidhave taken place to him is interesting too. Roombergh possibly pronounced might have in such a way that the /t/ (a voiceless plosive) softened to a /d/ (a voiced plosive), so this an example of intervocalic voicing of a voiceless plosive (lenition). It’s a case of intervocalic voicing, because the <d> in maidhave is located between a vowel and a weak consonant, <h>, which was very likely elided in pronunciation.

Two other spellings that attract attention are adress and Duplicaat. The latter is the Dutch word for “duplicate”, which Roombergh may have accidentally used because the Dutch and the English words look similar. Roombergh’s mother tongue may also have influenced his spelling of adress: the Dutch word adres (“address”) is spelled with one <d> and one <s>, whereas English spells double <d> and <s>. It looks as if Roombergh mixed both spellings up here.

So, in conclusion we may say that Roombergh had learned English fairly well, but  there are nevertheless a few things that remind us that English was not his mother tongue.

Closing formula letter to James Berry


Wal, M.J. van der, Rutten G.J. & Simons T.A. (2012), “Letters as loot. Confiscated letters filling major gaps in the history of Dutch”. In: Dossena M., Del Lungo Camiciotti (eds.), Letter Writing in Late Modern Europe. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 139-161.

(Images reproduced by permission from Marijke van der Wal.)

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Some interesting findings about Capitalization

Source: BBC

This is Benjamin Kennicott (1718-1783), a biblical scholar, who took it upon himself in the 1760s to collate Hebrew manuscripts that were written prior to the invention of printing. For this purpose, the sum of £10,000 (around £750,000 in modern currency) was gathered from subscriptions paid by scholars world-wide, who were in possession of the manuscripts to be collated. Maybe we can call this an early version of crowd-funding?

Around the same time, Kennicott was editing a Hebrew Bible. For his edition of the Hebrew Bible, he wanted to borrow an ancient manuscript, the Pentateuch in Hebrew, which was in the possession of Jan Jacob Schultens (1716-1788), the rector of Leiden University. Part of the correspondence between the two men is in the possession of the Leiden University Library.

Source: Wikipedia

Kennicott wrote to Professor Schultens asking if it were possible to borrow this ancient manuscript. In his letter, he gave Schultens assurances that he had been entrusted with ancient manuscripts before, and that all these treasures found their way back to the rightful owners in one piece.

Which leads me to the subject of this post: Capitalization.

While transcribing this particular letter, I noticed that Kennicott alternates between You and you when addressing Professor Schultens, and that there might be a pattern to it. This will become clearer from some examples. In the introduction of the letter, as well as in the closing formula, Kennicott uses a capital letter for the pronoun you:

  •   “… Mr. Durele … who lately had the pleasure of conversing with You at Leyden”    (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763).
  •   “Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)

This is not surprising: it is Kennicott’s way of showing respect. However, the body of the letter (the request for the manuscript) presents alternations between You and you, often depending on whether or not the clause refers to a positive outcome for Kennicott:

  • “If therefore, Sir, You shall shew me the same Kindness [of sending the manuscript]”
    (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)
  • “If you do not approve of this; then I shall be obliged to you for permitting it to be
    collated at Leyden” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)
  • “I beg the favour of a Letter soon, that I may know, whether You will oblige me, by transmitting Your MS for a few months to me; and, if not, whether it may be collated (under your Care)” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)

Having Professor Schultens send the manuscript would have been a very desirable outcome for Kennicott. He would be able to insert into his Hebrew Bible the desired sections, and in collating the manuscript (I assume) obtain the subscription fee, and his desired printing style (which turned out to be a failure, but more about that here).

Although it appears that in the late modern English period capitalization and spelling were unregulated, scholars like Fitzmaurice (2008) believe that certain words were capitalized to show emphasis. Could this then be manipulation by capitalization? It might be. Schultens did lend Kennicott the desired manuscript, as a subsequent letter dated 9 April 1764 shows.

Another possibility is that Kennicott unconsciously showed his respect and disrespect while writing his letter and thinking of the possible outcome of his request. But it would take some time after the writing of this letter before the Freudian slip was invented.


Fitzmaurice, Susan M. (2008). “Epistolary Identity: Convention and Idiosyncrasy
in Late Modern English Letters” in Studies in Late Modern English Correspondence (eds. Marina Dossena & Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade). Peter Lang. Berlin. 77-112.

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Terms of endearment in the nineteenth century

Ana Revan is another student in the Late Modern English letters course. This is her first blogpost.

Nowadays we see people on TV use a wide range of pet-names for their loved ones, and we do the same ourselves in our personal lives, but what terms of endearment would have been used by Victorians?

One well-known Victorian couple, whose love endured in the face of adversity and whose love letters are readily available, are the Brownings: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and Robert Browning (1812-1889). About the language of love letters, and especially the Brownings’ love letters, has been written elsewhere on this blog.


Their love letters might contain a plethora of words used as terms of endearment, as pet-names. Therefore, I did a small a pilot study, searching a small corpus of the Browning love letters for words that, according to the OED, were used as terms of endearment in the nineteenth century: angel, baby, beloved, darling, dear, dearest, honey, heart, love, lover, precious, sweetheart, treasure.

I found only five different tokens: Elizabeth uses angel and dearest to address Robert, and Robert uses dearest, love, Beloved (note the capital letter to show that it is a form of address not unlike sweetheart), and dear Ba to address Elizabeth. Surprising, right?

It is remarkable that not only does Elizabeth use fewer words of endearment than Robert, but also that she uses them less frequently than her fiancée does. Considering the fact that Elizabeth was not only older than Robert but also an invalid, she might be exercising caution from a sense of insecurity.

Given the limited number of pet-names found, it would appear that Victorians were slightly more reserved in their use of terms of endearment than we are used to nowadays. However, this quest for pet-names was done on a very small scale, so perhaps research on a larger corpus into the vocabulary of love could be an interesting topic for a larger study.



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