Rail tracks

Changing grammar and new words in the nineteenth century

A change on all levels of linguistic organization was apparent in the nineteenth century, whether in terms of spelling and sound, or syntax and meaning. While James Murray and his co-editors on the OED sought to record language in all its forms with apparent equanimity, the rise of new tenses, or new words and meanings could, for other writers, prompt highly negative reactions—and overt resistance. Change from this perspective was sometimes viewed less as evidence of the continued vitality of a living language, but as ‘degeneration’ and carelessness.

I regret to see that vile and barbarous vocable talented stealing out of the newspapers into the leading reviews and most respectable publications of the day.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table-Talk (1833)


In the context of grammar, one interesting nineteenth-century change was the rise of the progressive passive. This new construction—as in ‘the ship is being built’—was at first used alongside the older construction (‘Every body here is talking of a Steam Ship which is building at Leghorn’, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in a letter in 1819). But by the end of the century, the new form was clearly dominant. Popular estimations of correctness (and ‘good’ English) were nevertheless often at odds with evidence of actual usage. Resistance to the progressive passive continued to be expressed across the century, while the decline of the subjunctive after ‘if’ or ‘unless’ (‘if I were’/ ‘if I was’; ‘unless I be’/ ‘unless I am’) proved another source of prescriptive concern. The increasing use of got (‘it got broken’) was taken as further evidence of linguistic deterioration, as was the split infinitive, a construction which also emerges as a popular shibboleth at this time—in spite of its widespread use, as by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell:

In such conversation as was then going on, it is not necessary to accurately define the meaning of everything that is said.
Wives and Daughters (1867)

New Words

In the context of new words, a number of cross-currents are evident in the vocabulary, from the temporary presence of fashionable French words such as intime or bêtise (often used by the speaker or writer with the intention of signalling a certain status or prestige), to the often polysyllabic and scholarly coinages which marked the language of science. Science (and the scientist as a practitioner of science) are in fact particularly emblematic of language and innovation in the nineteenth century. Scientists had previously been known as natural philosophers, but a new emphasis on empirical and inductive methodology led to a perceived need for change:

We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.
William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840)

Innovations in terminology were widespread, indicating the increasing precision of scientific enquiry and investigation:

  • Medical advances led to the introduction of anaesthesia and anaesthetics, of chloroform (as both noun and verb), as well as now fundamental tools such as the stethoscope.
  • Types of illness and disease were also classified with a newly rigorous specificity, as in the striking prevalence of the suffix itis to denote ‘inflammation of’. Appendicitis was first recorded in 1886, slightly too late for the relevant section of the first edition of the OED which had appeared in the previous year, while other nineteenth-century coinages include conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and colitis.
  • New terms such as biology, climatology, and ethnology also gave increasing prominence to ology as a suffix, signalling newly specialized areas of study.

See more from Nineteenth-century English