The problem of reading dialect in semiliterate letters

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This qualitative study is concerned with the letters sent by two inhabitants of Lancashire in the first half of the nineteenth century, who had been transported to New South Wales: Thomas Holden (or Holding) and Richard Taylor. The corpus also includes letters to Holden from his family. The forces at work among working class people who had some writing ability – industrialisation, evangelicalism and the Sunday school tradition of education – are then discussed, with Holden and Taylor’s adherence to these norms demonstrated. The essay shows that, although all those writing are semi-literate, the language used which transgresses educated norms tends not to be dialectal but rather non-standard. It is suggested, therefore, that spoken dialect and written non-standard are strikingly different from each other, and not just because of the medium. Even in the early nineteenth century dialect speakers had a strongly developed sense of what was appropriate and could be understood outside their home districts.


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