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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English by Dutch people (2)

I wrote my first blogpost about a letter written by a Dutchman, which was written in English entirely. Meanwhile, I found another example of English written by a Dutch person, in a letter, dated 14 April 1758, where I did not expect to find any English because it was entirely in Dutch. The man who wrote this letter, Pieter Hanson, wrote a letter to his wife and, to my surprise, used a bit of English at the end of his letter. He wrote:

my Dier Polly
Do not fer Get Jour Dier Hansom [?] Dat
Loves you so Dear Ly

Pieter Hanson1

It is only a short sentence, but an interesting one. It is clear that his spelling is influenced by his native tongue, Dutch. For example, he writes Jour which should have been written with a <y>. In Dutch, <j> and <y> are pronounced similarly, which might explain why he wrote a <j> here (he does write you though, which might mean that his English was not so good that he could use the English spelling consistently). Furthermore, he writes Dat instead of that, which can be explained by the fact that the Dutch language does not know the ‘th’-sound. It is possible that Pieter Hanson, like many Dutch speakers today, pronounced this sound like a <d>, which explains why he wrote Dat instead of that.

Furthermore, there may be a possible pun on his name. The name of the letter writer is Pieter Hanson (originally from “son of Hans”), but it looks as if he spelled his name ‘Hansom’. If the character is indeed an <m>, could he have meant that his wife should not forget her handsome husband?

Lastly, I think it is interesting that he addresses his wife with ‘Polly’, whereas her name was Maria Magdalena Maerle. Perhaps this was a nickname that he used for her, similar to the English Mary called Polly, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Pieter Hanson2

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

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The Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms

Merel Kohsiek wrote her first blogpost on the Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms, and how Charlotte’s identity was revealed:

Charlotte Brontë (source: Wikipedia)

Charlotte Brontë is now known mainly for her novel Jane Eyre, but her contemporaries did not know her as such. The novel was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, a masculine name with the very same initials as her own name. Her two younger sisters, Emily (Ellis) and Anne (Acton), also published novels under false names. During the research I did for my course paper on Charlotte Brontë’s language of grief, I came across a letter in which she revealed her own and her sister’s identities to her publishers, Mr. Smith and Mr. Williams, with whom she had been corresponding for a while under the name Currer Bell. His astonishment at finding her to be a woman are described, as well as her wish to keep living in anonymity.

I then put his [i.e. Smith’s] own letter into his hand directed to “Currer Bell.” He looked at it—then at me—again—yet again—I laughed at his queer perplexity—A recognition took place— 

We were as resolved as ever to preserve our incognito—We had only confessed ourselves to our publisher—in order to do away with the inconveniences that had arisen from our too well preserved mystery—to all the rest of the world we must be “gentlemen” as heretofore.

(Both quotations are from a letter to Mary Taylor, 4 September 1848.)

It seems that not only did the sisters want to ‘preserve their incognito’ with strangers, none of their friends knew about their secret authorship either. There is no reference to Charlotte’s publications in any of her letters to Ellen Nussey, with whom she had maintained a close friendship since childhood. After her brother Branwell passed away (in September 1848), Charlotte (in a letter to Williams) expressed her sadness that he will never know of the success of his sisters, which might even have motivated him to make something more of his own life.

The fact that Charlotte chose to keep her authorship a secret from Ellen Nussey seems to indicate that their friendship may not have been as close as would be supposed from their correspondence. I would argue that due to the fact that Williams is aware of her authorship, and their letters discuss personal matters as well as matters of publishing, their friendship seems the closer one. I hope to elaborate my conclusions in my upcoming course paper.


Brontë, C. (1995-2000). The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: with a selection of letters by family and friends. Margaret Smith (ed.). 2 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Clever letter writing tools: the Polygraph

Here is Martijn Slokker’s first blogpost:

While doing research for my course paper I made the fortuitous decision of watching the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, a series that chronicles the political life of the second president of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826). In the finale of the series we see how Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third president of the United States, starts writing a letter to John Adams. In this scene Jefferson sits down behind his desk and you see him writing his letter using an odd looking device with moving parts and two pen-holders. I did not immediately grasp the function of this device and decided to try and find out more about it. After searching for a bit I found the device in question: a polygraph. You can see an image of this device below.

A Polygraph (source: Wikipedia)

Today, most people would probably think of a lie detector when we see the word polygraph. However, the device pictured above was used as a copying device, making its name very literal. It allowed its user to create a copy of the letter he or she was composing. In the image above you can see that the device holds two pens. The letter writer would hold one of these pens and would start writing a letter. The second pen, being connected the other via various interlinked mechanisms, would copy the first’s movements exactly and produce a second letter that was an exact copy of the original. More on the machine’s workings and history can be found here: Polygraph (duplicating device).

According to Smith (1996), Jefferson, who found it very important to create duplicates of important documents, experimented with many available copying methods; his favourite one was the polygraph “which he enthusiastically promoted” (p. 16) after being introduced to it in 1804. Smith further writes that Jefferson also spent a great deal of time building a better version of the device with the help of a team that included the original inventor (John Isaac Hawkings, 1772-1855) and manufacturer (Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827).

For a man like Thomas Jefferson, ingenious inventions like the polygraph would be a real benefit and timesaver in his daily activities. According to the Monticello’s website, the site of the historical landmark that was Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Jefferson wrote nearly 20,000 letters in his lifetime. He calculated to have received 1,267 letters in the year 1820 alone. One can imagine how a polygraph would prove to be a useful addition to his writing desk.

Having never heard of this device before, I thought it was a pretty clever invention for a time where photocopiers and printers did not exist. Do any of you perhaps know of more of these kinds of innovative contraptions that would greatly improve the quality of lives for letter writers in the Late Modern English period?


Smith, Catherine F. 1996. Thomas Jefferson’s Computer. Computers and Composition 13, 5-21.

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Politeness strategies in valedictions

Epistolary fomulas were clearly a popular topic during last semester’s course on Late Modern English letters. Here is what Klazien Tilstra wrote about themin her second blogpost:

This is not the first blog post on opening and closing formulae in Late Modern English letters. In her blog on opening and closing formulae in the letters of John Gay (1685-1732), Sabine Krouwels mentions a  free adaptation of the I am your humble servant rule in the valediction of a merry letter byJohn Gay and a few friends to Mary Bellenden, in 1717 (we are Your Servants wherever we go). Sopio Zhgenti mentions the use of nicknames in closing formulae in her blog post on the letters of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941),  as in the closing yr. lover, Sparroy, in a letter to Violet Dickinson, in 1902. Sophio suggests that Woolf used different closing formulae in formal and in informal letters, using nicknames only in her informal letters.

For my own research project on politeness in eighteenth-century letters, I looked at opening and closing formulae in the letters of Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), where I found variations on the I am your humble servant theme as well, and also on the my dear friend kind of opening formula, sometimes even both in the same letter. What to think of the closing formula in a letter by Montagu to her husband, written in 1769:

I am my Dearest Yr most faithfull & Obedt Wife EM,

or  the closing formula in a letter to her Bluestocking acquaintance Benjamin Stillingfleet, written in 1769:

With entire esteem I am Dr Sir yr most affectionate & faithful Friend and Hble Servt.

Source: Stephen Levinson’s website at the Max Planck Institute

In order to understand the politeness strategies used in these valedictions I consulted reading  Brown and Levinson’s book on universal politeness theory  (1987), which is based on notions of face-want. According to Brown and Levinson people basically have two desires: the first is to be unimpeded in their freedom, and the second is to be liked and approved. When, in interaction, someone threatens someone else’s fundamental desires – for instance by making a request –  or insufficiently meets them – for instance by uttering criticism or affecting unconcern – politeness can help to improve the relation.

Brown and Levinson distinguish between negative politeness and positive politeness. An example of the first is showing respect by linguistic deference. Examples of the second are the use of in-group identity markers, small talk, and jokes. Whether someone will choose a negative or a positive politeness strategy will mainly depend on the relation with the other. If, for instance, a letter writer perceives the addressee as more powerful (P) and the social distance (D) between them as great, the writer will choose for a strategy of negative politeness; if the letter writer perceives the other as having less power (P), and the social distance (D) as minor, the writer will choose a strategy of positive politeness.

On the basis of this theory,  we can interpret the valediction of John Gay  and his friends, we are Your Servants wherever we go,  as a positive politeness strategy: an in-group identity marker, or a joke  on the negative politeness strategy of linguistic deference,  as expressed in I am you humble servant. We can also interpret Virginia Woolf’s valediction yr. lover, Sparroy  as a positive politeness strategy: it clearly functions as an in-group identity marker. In both situations the positive politeness strategy is appropriate: the writers feel equal (in power) and close (in social distance) to the recipients.

Elizabeth Montagu’s valedictions are mixed: they show both positive and negative politeness strategies. The courtly words faithfull & Obedt, esteem, faithful and Hble Servt show the negative politeness strategy of linguistic deference. The words Dearest, affectionate and Friend are in-group markers expressing positive politeness strategies. Using both strategies in a single valediction may have been an intelligent strategy for the expression of mixed feelings. As an extremely rich member of the upper-classes, an involved friend and family member, and a central figure in the literary gatherings of the Bluestocking Circle, Montagu must have felt independent, self-conscious, and close to her friends and family members. However, in her role of a woman, wife or daughter, she may have felt differently, feeling the need to acknowledge the superiority of men. In the first situation a positive politeness strategy was the appropriate one, and in the second situation a negative politeness strategy. I think that this mixed strategy was an appropriate solution for an uneasy situation.

For my purposes, the universal politeness theory of Levinson and Brown (1987) proved to be an insightful sociolinguistic tool for analysing politeness in Late Modern English letters.


Brown, Penelope and Steven C. Levinson  1987. Politeness, Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Gender differences in politeness

In her second blogpost, Jiayan Xu reports on her findings from the essay she wrote to round off the course The Sociolinguistics of Late Modern English Letters:

My term paper was about discovering gender differences in terms of politeness theory, taking the Browning Love Letters as the object of my analysis. What I found was that Robert Browning used more positive politeness strategies in his love letters to Elizabeth Barratt, which showed him to be a man full of enthusiasm and positive attitudes, while Elizabeth Barrett showed more negative politeness

This appears to be contrary to many sociolinguistic studies that regard women’s verbal expressions more positively polite. Evidence can be found in Holmes’s (1988) article on paying compliments: for example, women prefer using compliments and a large number of other positive-politeness strategies. Perhaps there are several explanations for why some widely accepted sociolinguistic conclusions on gender variations in politeness strategies could not be applied to the nineteenth-century love letters that I studied.

A selection of courtship letters

First, Barrett was afraid that Robert Browning was deceiving himself, and his fondness of her might not last long. She thought that her lung illness and her disability might bring trouble as well. Additionally, she was ten years older than Browning, which might have made her feel that she would not be able to remain attractive to Robert Browning. This is what she wrote about it, on 15 May 1845: “ …there is nothing to see in me; nor to hear in me—I never learned to talk as you do in London; although I can admire that brightness of carved speech …”.

Secondly, Elizabeth Barrett’s father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, wished none of his children to marry, which acted as a major obstacle and blocked any possibly developing intimacy with Robert Browning. My study therefore showed that actually it is the specific context of language use that influences style of letter writing and ways of expressing politeness. How politeness strategies differentiate along with gender differences clearly also depends on such contextual factors.


Holmes, Janet. 1998. Paying compliments: a sex-preferential politeness strategy. Journal of Pragmatics 12, 445-465.

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January is a month of marking – essays, chapters as well as blogposts Here is another one, Klazien Tilstra’s first piece, which is far from awkward!

While reading a letter by Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), I was struck by the word awkward. In the letter, to her best friend Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), on 11 July 1782, a few years after the death of her husband, Elizabeth Montagu writes

Elizabeth Montagu (Wikipedia)

We are not so perfectly of ye rib of Man as Woman ought to be. We can think for ourselves, & also act for ourselves. When a Wife, I was obedient because it was my duty, & being married to a Man of sense and integrity, obedience was not painful or irksome, and in early Youth a director perhaps is necessary if the sphere of action is extensive; but it seems to me that a new Master, & new Lessons, after ones opinions & habits were form’d, must be a little awkward, & with all due respect to ye superior Sex, I do not see how they can be necessary to a Woman unless she were to defend her Lands & Tenements by sword or gun

In the letter Montagu shows herself a feminist ‘avant la lettre’ (and a rich woman possessing lands and tenements). But how about her use of the word awkward?

Awkward is used in the Dutch language as well: it is a popular loanword. The word was the winner of the Dutch contest Anglicism van het jaar 2013!   According to the jury of the contest (including well-known linguists like Marc van Oostendorp and Nicoline van der Sijs), awkward was a welcome addition to the Dutch language. It fills a gap: it does not have a good short Dutch near-equivalent. It expresses social situations that are uneasy, shameful, and causing embarrassment. The organizers of the contest had spotted the loanword in German, French Spanish and South-African tweets as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has an interesting etymology. It is a combination of the Old Norse word awk and the suffix -ward , meaning something like ‘in an awk direction’: not forward, not backward, but  awkward:  ‘in the wrong direction’.  The OED subsequently shows meanings ranging from ‘turned the wrong way’, ‘perverse in conduct’, ‘adverse to one’s course’, ‘clumsy’,  ‘embarrassing’, and ‘rather dangerous’, although also mentioning that the entry is not fully updated. The first text in which the word awkward was spotted dates from the year 1340. Awkward is a very old word.

A search through the Intelex Past Masters database, accessible through the Leiden University Library, consisting of texts from mainly eighteenth and some nineteenth-century philosophers, historians and (letter) writers, shows that the word was very commonly used at the time. As many as 165 documents were found to contain the word awkward. Letter writers like Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Fanny Burney, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Samuel Johnson, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Horace Walpole, Coleridge, and Edmund Burke, all frequently used the word: the search function in the Intelex Past Masters database shows exactly where and in which context. It is difficult to pin down the exact meaning of the word though. Two extra examples from letters by Elizabeth Carter give two extra possible meanings and contexts of the word.

Elizabeth Carter (Wikipedia)

From Elizabeth Carter a letter to Catherine Talbot (16 April 1754)

You charge me, my dear Miss Talbot, not to refuse such an offer, if it should be made me; but let me intreat you to consider how absolutely unfit I am in every respect for a court. Need I remind you of the very awkward, and even ideot figure I make in company where I am under the least restraint.

And one from a letter by Carter to Elizabeth Montagu (21 August 1767)

I hope you will soon give me the pleasure of hearing from you. It is excessively awkward and mortifying to me to be in utter uncertainty where you are 

Awkward appears to be a flexible word: it can be used to refer to a whole cluster of meanings, best understood by its etymology, and can be used to describe opinions, feelings as well as situations. This has undoubtedly contributed to its survival and attractiveness.

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