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English Fiction and the Evolution of Language, 1850–1914


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 (ISBN-13: 9781316310892)

Victorian science changed language from a tool into a natural phenomenon, evolving independently of its speakers. Will Abberley explores how science and fiction interacted in imagining different stories of language evolution. Popular narratives of language progress clashed with others of decay and degeneration. Furthermore, the blurring of language evolution with biological evolution encouraged Victorians to re-imagine language as a mixture of social convention and primordial instinct. Abberley argues that fiction by authors such as Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hardy and H. G. Wells not only reflected these intellectual currents, but also helped to shape them. Genres from utopia to historical romance supplied narrative models for generating thought experiments in the possible pasts and futures of language. Equally, fiction that explored the instinctive roots of language intervened in debates about language standardisation and scientific objectivity. These textual readings offer new perspectives on twenty-first-century discussions about language evolution and the language of science.

• Reveals how nineteenth-century debates and thought experiments about the evolution of language prefigured current, twenty-first-century discussions of the subject • Considers intersections between science and literature and connects debates over Standard English with arguments about scientific objectivity • Discusses popular authors such as Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Jack London and William Morris, as well as neglected and rarely discussed authors and literary genres


Introduction: language under a microscope; 1. The future of language in prophetic fiction; 2. Primitive language in imperial, prehistoric and scientific romances; 3. Organic orality and the historical romance; 4. Instinctive signs: nature and culture in dialogue; Conclusion: widening the lens; Bibliography.


'… Abberley's study successfully explores his central thesis without overburdening the reader with jargon and over-arguing; instead, he allows the cornucopia of texts he explores to speak for themselves.' Michael R. Page, The Review of English Studies

'English Fiction and the Evolution of Language presents scientific philological and evolutionary thinking in a lucid and accessible way, persuasively demonstrating how actively writers of fiction engaged with these discourses and grappled with resolving their contradictions. … This is a rich close investigation of the relationship between fiction and language evolution forming a valuable and worthy addition to the scholarship of nineteenth-century literature and science.' Emily Alder, Journal of Victorian Culture

'… this is a work of admirably wide-ranging scholarship that should generate further interest in a fascinating subject and will certainly serve as a useful foundation for more specialized work in the future.' Nicholas Ruddick, Review 19 (

'Abberley's book is a slim one (four chapters and 175 pages of text), but it is unusually wide-ranging and comprehensive, citing an astonishing number of novels and stories, and drawing together material from both familiar and obscure sources. Abberley packs a great deal into every paragraph: his readings are rich and condensed, and on every page he demonstrates the value of the twenty-first-century critic's awareness of the language concerns of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. This is a book to be absorbed and used.' Donald S. Hair, Victorian Studies

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