Jane Austen: a very polite correspondent

Merel Kohsiek’s second blog post is on a comparison between the language of Charlotte Brontë and that of Jane Austen:

For my analysis of the language of grief in Charlotte Brontë’s letters (see also my previous blog post), I did a keyword analysis with the help of WordSmith Tools in which I used Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) letters as a reference corpus. One of the results was that very had was a negative key. In other words, Charlotte Brontë used the word relatively little in comparison to the reference corpus. However, another explanation is also possible: the author of the reference corpus uses the word relatively often. Though all this was a bit off topic for my essay, it was still a question that occupied my mind.

Jane Austen (source: wikipedia)

Throughout her letters, Austen used the word very as often as 1,241 times. This frequency ranks it as the 19th most frequently used word in her letters. Strikingly, very is not even one of the hundred most common words in English. The eighteen words that occur more often than very are all among the hundred common ones. The next item that is not among the common words is much. Both much and very are quantifiers. This leads us to the question what this could mean for Jane Austen’s language.

A concordance search resulted in a number of clusters or set phrases Austen used the word very in. I include the first fifteen results below, where I have categorized them  as ‘descriptions of people,’ ‘politeness’ and ‘other.’

Descriptions of peopleI am veryShe is veryAm very muchI was very

PolitenessVery glad toVery much obligedMuch obliged toBe very gladObliged to youAm very glad

Other: Had a veryA very goodIs a veryTo be veryIt is very

Though I categorized some utterances as descriptions of people and others as politeness, they do not mutually exclude one another. Depending on context, I am very, am very much and I was very can all be part of a politeness  phrase. All in all, this leads me to conclude that Austen’s frequent use of the word very is part of her means to be very polite in her letters. It would be wrong to assume that this means that Austen used a lot of negative politeness, as the following passage from a letter to her brother Francis (Frank) shows.

My dearest Frank

The 11th of this month brought me your letter & I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/3d. — I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet a  paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way, You pay most liberally; — my Letter was a scratch of a note compared with yours — & then you write so even, so clear both in style & Penmanship, so much to the point & give so much real intelligence that it is enough to kill one (Letter 90, 25 September 1813)

Austen’s use of very, even in the formulaic I am very much obliged, is meant as a marker of positive politeness toward her brother.

In sum, I was right to assume that the fact that very came up as a negative key for Brontë had more to do with Austen’s letters as a reference corpus than with Brontë’s language.

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