The problem of reading dialect in semiliterate letters
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.