In favour of intensifiers

And here is Ekaterina Krokhina’s second blogpost, nicely continuing her findings after the first. A good example of work in progress.

           I am really very much indebted to you for your well-filled and very interesting letter (1832; Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey)

Source: WikipediaI would like to start my blog post from this opening of Charlotte Brontё’s  (1816–1855) letter to her best friend Ellen Nussey (1817–1897) in order to remind you, readers, how precious letters used to be for people. If we want to send a letter now, we can do it easily, as a piece of cake, although nowadays it will be most likely not a real letter but an electronic one. The attitude towards letters was completely different in the past. Have a look at the phrase above one more time and pay attention to this part “I am really very much indebted”. Don’t you think this part is a little bit overcrowded with intensifiers? Still the intensification is not finished yet, we can see that “well-filled and very interesting” are coming next. After coming across this “over- intensified” sentence and a few similar ones, I decided to check the whole first volume of Charlotte Brontё’s correspondence. I was particularly interested in her use of intensifiers. To my surprise it turned out that very was the most frequent intensifier in her letters. Charlotte Brontё also used most but not as often as very. In the first volume of her correspondence she used very 415 times and most only 127 times.

Mustanoja reports that ongoing renewal of popular intensifiers happens all the time. The first shifts can be traced back to the twelfth century (1960, p. 319), as illustrated in this overview: 






As the table shows, there were two main intensifiers really and very, which were the most common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Charlotte Brontё was obviously in favour of very, using really only 55 times in the first volume of her letters. Her usage of really is 7.5 times lower than that of very, interesting, isn’t it?

My first blog post, was devoted to Charlotte Brontё’s usage of most. At that time I couldn’t answer the following question: Why did she use most as an intensifier? Now, I would like to suggest that she used most as a semantic synonym of very. These two intensifiers (with the exception of cases where most served as a superlative) were sort of interchangeable in her letters.

Here are some examples:

  1. I feel most anxious to learn how matters progress (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1845)

      We feel very dull without you (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen  Nussey, 1840)

  1. On that day we shall all be most happy to see you, and till then believe me to be (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1833)

      We shall be very happy to wait upon yourself and Sister… (Charlotte Brontё to Miss Ann Greenwood, 1836)

  1. ….and very welcome messengers they are (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1845)

      Your letter and its contents were most welcome (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1847)

      You must excuse a very short answer to your last most welcome letter (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1841)

These examples show that Charlotte Brontё indeed used very and most quite interchangeably.

According to Quirk et al. (1985), the most rapid and the most interesting semantic developments in linguistic change are said to occur with intensifiers (1985, p. 590), and Peters (1994) claims that “[t]his area of grammar is always undergoing meaning shifts partly because of speaker’s desire to be original” (1994, p. 271). I assume that Charlotte Brontё was also quite “original” in her use of intensifiers. In any case, she was clearly in favour of them.


Brontë, C. The letters of Charlotte Brontë: with a selection of letters by family and friends (1829-1847). M. Smith (ed.). Vol. 1. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Mustanoja, T.F. (1960). A Middle English syntax. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Peters, H. (1994). Degree adverbs in early modern English. In Dieter Kastovsky (ed.), Studies in Early Modern English, 269–88. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. New York: Longman.

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Musical Correctness: “One Stroke and You’ve Consumed My Waking Days”

Source: Wikipedia

And here is Ilse Stolte’s first blog post for the MA course Late Modern English Letters:

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical on Alexander Hamilton’s life (1757-1804) – aptly named Hamilton – a lot is said (or sung) about letters. One song in particular – namely, Take a Break – partially focusses on the relationship between Hamilton and his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church, and the letters they write to each other. Their relationship in the musical is a complicated one; Angelica and Alexander fall in love at first sight, but they are unable to marry and Alexander marries Angelica’s sister Elizabeth instead. However, their love for each other does not die away and during their lives, they write each other many letters.

One verse of the song Take a Break focusses on an opening formula used by Hamilton to Angelica and how that betrays his feelings towards her:

In a letter I received from you two weeks ago

I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase

It changed the meaning, did you intend this

One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days, it says

My dearest Angelica

With a comma after dearest, you’ve written

My dearest, Angelica

The musical is, of course, a dramatisation of history, and creative liberties have been taken. For instance, when they met in real life, Angelica was already married, whereas in the musical she is not. So, how accurate is this portrayal according to the actual letters Hamilton wrote to her? We might not be able to know for sure if their relationship went beyond being family and friends. However, by looking at their real letters, we can see if they did enjoy such a close relationship.

On the website Founders Online, all the surviving papers of the US Founding Fathers have been transcribed in collaboration with the University of Virginia Press. Amongst these papers, Hamilton’s papers can be found as well, including fifteen letters he wrote to Angelica from 1785 to 1800. In these letters, the closeness of their relationship is evident. For example, in his letter to her written on 3 August 1785, he calls her “one great source of happiness”.

However, to see how close they were, you do not even need to look at the letters themselves; the opening and closing formulas show that Hamilton felt a lot of love and respect for Angelica.

In the letters, Hamilton addresses Angelica as “My Dear Friend”, “My Dear Sister” and “My Dear Angelica”. In only fourletters, does he use these as a traditional opening formula at the beginning of the letter; in most of the letters, their closeness is shown by Hamilton imbedding these opening formulas into the first sentence of the letter itself. For example:

It is an eternity Dear Angelica since either your sister or myself have received a single line from you.

In the letters, it is clear from his opening (and even closing) formulas and the language and the topics of the letters themselves that Hamilton very much cared about Angelica, but whether there was something more between them than mere friendship and kinship remains a question to me.


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On the history of most

I’m teaching a course on Late Modern English letters this semester, for which all participants (as in earlier courses on the subject) have to write two blog posts on a topic relating to what we’re doing in the course. Here comes Katja (Ekaterina) Krokhina’s first blogpost. 

Sourse: Wikipedia

It goes without saying that everybody who speaks English has heard of the adverb most. What comes to your mind first when you hear this word? The superlative form of comparison perhaps? How many of you, readers, have thought of most in the function of an adverbial intensifier? In this blog post, I would like to shed some light on most as an intensifier. In order to do so I will travel back in time, to the days of Charlotte Brontё (1816–1855).

While reading Charlotte Brontё’s letters, I came across some unfamiliar examples related to the case of most. Here are some of them:

  • I am most grieved (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1836)
  • On that day we shall all be most happy to see you, and till then believe me to be (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1833)
  • However I thank both you & your Mother for the invitation which was most kindly expressed (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1839)
  • Richard most kindly disbursed all the expenses (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1833)
  • I laughed most heartily at her graphic details (Charlotte Brontё to Ellen Nussey, 1836)

In these examples, Charlotte Brontё usesmost as an intensifier with a meaning that is close to very. But how come that nowadays this usage is not in favour anymore? This was exactly the question which I asked to myself. To see what scholars say about this question, I have done some research and here I am with the freshly baked answer.


Source: Wikipedia

Tauno Mustanoja (1912–1996), a philologist and scholar of Medieval and Middle English, together with the Dutch linguist Elly van Gelderen described the origin and historical route of the adverb most (2016: 328). According to Mustanoja and van Gelderen, most used to be common in early ME, but it gave its way to almost (all+most) after the middle of the thirteenth century. Although most never disappeared completely from the English language, this adverb bit by bit lost its intensifying function, starting to establish itself in the system of “multiple comparisons” (2016: 328). Following Mustanoja and van Gelderen, “multiple comparison” is defined as “the use of more and most with the inflectional comparative and superlative”, for example, “moste clennest flesch”. Later on, with the increasing use of the periphrastic system of comparison, the usage of most as a superlative became quite common from the fourteenth century onwards (Mustanoja). Nevertheless, this is a different story.

Going back to the topic of intensifiers in Charlotte Brontё’s correspondence, it should be said that she had two personal “favourites” among them: very and most. I am already looking forward to discussing these two intensifying adverbs in my next blog post, to see which one she preferred in her letters. For all that, it would be quite interesting to know if there are any people nowadays who still use most as an intensifier. Would it be acceptable to say, for example, it is most interesting or I think it is most exciting? Please let me know if you have any ideas on this topic.


Brontë, C. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: with a selection of letters     by family and friends (1829−1847). M. Smith (ed.). Vol. 1. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Mustanoja, T. F., & Gelderen, E. van (2016). A Middle English Syntax : Parts of Speech. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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Late Modern English letters in the classroom

Last Friday, I taught a class of 11-year olds about Jane Austen and her letters. What an amazing experience it was. The occasion was the University of Leiden’s 444th birthday, for which a programme called “Meet the professor” was set up. The school that invited me was the school my own kids went to, more than 20 years ago.

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An MA course on Late Modern English letters

The coming semester, I will be teaching another MA course on Late Modern English letters. The aim of the course is for students at Leiden to learn all about letter writing during that period, including analysing the language of this very interesting and important text type. Students will be expected to write blog posts on their findings as well, so readers of this blog will be receiving regular bits and pieces of state-of-the-art information on LModE letters. I hope you will be looking forward to this as much as I am.

As a foretaste, here is an image of a letter writing desk from my own collection, very similar to the one owned by Jane Austen, held by the British Library. The picture was recently posted (with permission of course) on a Korean website on the eighteenth-century room. Fascinating – though unfortunately I can’t read Korean, but perhaps other readers of this blog can.

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The next Late Modern English Conference

… will take place in Ragusa, Sicily, from 7-9 May 2020, organised by Massimo Sturiale. Great news for all of us who are doing research on Late Modern English letters.

This will be the seventh conference in a row. Earlier ones were held in Edinburgh in 2000 (I believe), in Vigo in 2004, in Leiden in 2007, in Sheffield in 2010, in Bergamo in 2013, and in Uppsala this year (2017).

Thanks to Carol Percy for this very useful link called HEL on the Web.

Conference proceedings:

LModE Conference 1: Dossena, Marina, and Charles Jones (eds.). 2003. Insights into Late Modern English. Bern: Peter Lang.

LModE Conference 2: Pérez-Guerra, Javier, Dolores González-Álvarez, Jorge L. Bueno-Alonso & Esperanza Rama-Martínez‘. 2007. ‘Of varying language and opposing creed’: New insights into Late Modern English. Bern, etc.: Peter Lang.

LModE Conference 3: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Wim van der Wurff (eds.) (2009), Current Issues in Late Modern English. Bern etc.: Peter Lang.

LModE Conference 4: 2012: special issue of English language and Linguistics (16).

LModE Conference 5: Dossena, Marina (ed.). 2015. Transatlantic Perspectives on Late Modern English. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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Jane Austen’s Language …

… is the topic of this year’s Sample Lecture for English organised by the Leiden University Humanities Faculty on 15 April 2016. During this lecture you will learn why Jane Austen’s language (in addition to her novels) is of interest in its own right, and why the language of her letters is particularly important when we want to learn more about Jane Austen as a person.

The lecture will be followed by a seminar in which we will look at things like the form of Jane Austen’s letters, and in which we will use a digital tool to analyse the language of the letters and the novels. If you are interested: register for the lecture plus seminar here. And if you do decide to come to Leiden for this event: don’t forget to bring a pair of scissors!

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