Hardy’s Lexical Eclecticism and the Language Divide

Among the Victorian realists, Thomas Hardy is one of the most renowned. He lived and worked during the late 1800’s, a time of intense change, when industrialization in England, Europe, and America was in full swing, and the British Empire was on the rise in India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. Consequently, Hardy wrote during a period when social etiquette, education, religion, and employment were all in flux, and the English language was evolving dramatically in order to keep pace. Hardy had access to an extraordinary library of English words from which to choose for his novels. As noted by Ralph Elliott in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, “His language exhibits, from his earliest fiction and verse, a constant quest for the right word, and in his search he turned to whatever source was available, ancient or modern, obsolete or contemporary” (Elliott). A close examination of Hardy’s lexical eclecticism in his novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd, reveals how Hardy’s use of rapidly changing English at the turn of the 20th century, specifically combined, shifted, and created neologisms alongside modern, archaic, and dialectical language, created rich, descriptive narrative and engaging characterization that lifted the regional novel into prominence.

Hardy scoured the English language to find just the right words and phrases to express both his nostalgia for England’s disappearing rural life and his Victorian fascination with scientific developments and evolving socioeconomics. Hardy appreciated the alleviation of hardships that modern advancements offered. A reading of any of his novels, however, reveals his strong connection to the rural lifestyle and countryside of his childhood. “Hardy has been acclaimed for his Wordsworthian eye for the phenomena of nature,” says Carl J. Weber in his article, Virtue from Wessex (Weber). Hardy considered himself a Wordsworthian, explaining in an article in The Life in 1881 that, “the more perfectly the natural object is reproduced, the more truly poetic the picture. This reproduction is achieved by seeing into the heart of a thing” (Asquith). At the same time, Hardy was able to observe firsthand the technological advances taking place in London during the mid-1800s. While working for London architect Arthur Bloomfield, Hardy was able to “see Charing Cross station being built… The new underground railway made it easier to move between lodgings, work, and pleasure. He went to the theatre, the opera, and especially to art galleries” (Chapman). Hardy was able to combine his knowledge of modern advances with his passion for the natural world and traditional English to create stunning descriptions of settings.

One of the ways he shared his vision “into the heart of a thing” with his readers was by using personification to give inanimate objects and natural settings the same richness and depth as his human characters. Satoshi Nishimura noted, “For Hardy…the act of writing consists for him not in representing existing reality with language, but in using language as the medium through which to call a reality into being” (Nishimura). For example, consider Hardy’s description of a stand of trees in Return of the Native:

Here the trees, laden heavily with their new and humid leaves, were now suffering more damage than during the highest winds of winter when the boughs are especially disencumbered to do battle with the storm. The wet young beeches were undergoing amputations, bruises, cripplings, and harsh lacerations, from which the wasting sap would bleed for many a day to come, and which would leave scars visible till the day of their burning. Each stem was wrenched at the root, where it moved like a bone in its socket, and at every onset of the gale convulsive sounds came from the branches, as if pain were felt (Hardy, Return of the Native).

There are several interesting linguistic elements in this passage demonstrating Hardy’s manipulation of language to “call a reality into being.” First, the personification of the trees which are “suffering” and are “disencumbered to do battle”, forms a vivid image for the reader and sets the bleak tone for the scene. Hardy uses several medical and anatomical terms (“amputations,” “bruises,” “lacerations,” “bleed,” and “bone in its socket”) that were becoming more common as medical sciences advanced—a nod to modernity—to further imbue the trees with a human aspect. The word “cripplings” is an example of Hardy shifting an adjective to a noun, creating a neologism that adds interest to his trope; it cannot be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hardy also uses prefixing, adding the prefix “dis-” to the word “encumbered” creating the word “disencumbered.” While the word “disencumbered” may not be a neologism, it was not a word commonly used outside of the legal profession, making Hardy’s use somewhat unique.

Hardy continued to display his devotion to both Wordsworthian description and the selection of “the right word” in his descriptions of his human characters where he used a mixture of combined, shifted, and archaic words along with oxymoronic pairings of adjectives. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he used the word “frizzle-headed” to describe the driver of Durbeyfield’s chaise (Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles). “Frizzle” is a verb meaning “to curl hair”, but it is also closely related to the word “frieze” which is a kind of coarse wool cloth with a nap on one side (Douglas Harper). Hardy used “frizzle” as a noun, a grammatical shift, combined with the past-tense verb “headed” to create an image of a woman with curly—or perhaps wooly—hair. Reaching back in time, Hardy uses the word “flexuous” to describe women working in a hayfield in Far from the Madding Crowd. He says, “They consisted in about equal proportions of gnarled and flexuous forms, the former being men, the latter women” (Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd). “Flexuous” is an adjective meaning “full of bends or curves,” in use in the 1600s (Douglas Harper). The word had fallen out of common usage, but Hardy revived it to create an image of the female form, and perhaps to tie the image to the traditional work in which the women were engaged. Combined with the word “gnarled”, “flexuous” creates an image of the workers as knotted and sinuous trees. In Return of the Native, Hardy paired contradictory adjectives to describe Eustacia’s character. Hardy states that Eustacia’s appearance “accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendor of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her” (Hardy, Return of the Native). Splendor which is “shady” and warmth which is “sad and stifled” are oxymorons that hint at Eustacia’s changeable or contradictory nature.

When Hardy wasn’t combining modern terminology with his own combined, shifted, or newly coined words, or resurrecting archaic terms, he was likely preserving the dialects of rural Dorset and the West Country. Having lived most of his life in Dorset it is unsurprising that many of the characters who reside in his fictional Wessex speak with a decidedly rural Dorset or West Country dialect. Hardy captures the phonological and grammatical variation of the area where people were mostly employed in agricultural jobs and generally stayed close to home. His characters, particularly the locals, almost always converse in their own vernacular which reflects their rural environment and occupations. Consider the following conversation from Far From the Madding Crowd:

“And ‘a can play the peanner, so ‘tis said. Can play so clever that ‘a can make a psalm tune sound as well as the merriest loose song a man can wish for.”

“D’ye tell o’t! A happy time for us, and I feel quite a new man! And how do she pay?”

“That I don’t know, Master Poorgrass” (Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd).

The speakers are easily identified as West Country folk by the t-glottalization (“and ‘a can play,” instead of “and it can play”), the use of “it” instead of “she” as a personal pronoun, the use of “thee,” “thou,” and “ye” instead of “you”, and the adding of an “r” to the end of words ending in vowels (“peanner” instead of “piano”). Ann Curzan explains that “phonological variation among dialects can be the result of heritage, development or some combination of the two” (Curzan). In this case, the dialect stems from ancient Norse and Saxon after the area was invaded in the 6th century. Due to the isolation of the area, little changed until the 19th century (Wakelin). Hardy even includes some obscure local colloquialisms. Billy Smallbury, for example, reflects that, while Bathsheba is beautiful, “that’s only the skin of the woman, and these dandy cattle be as proud as a lucifer in their insides.” “Dandy cattle” isn’t actually a pejorative, it’s a West Country expression of admiration, where cattle ranching and other agricultural arts were common (Trim).

Hardy’s appreciation of local dialects, however, had a limit. According to Chapman, “The prestige of a national standard was growing in the second half of the nineteenth century. The implications of the status-conscious in a dialect area were interesting and often amusing. Hardy sometimes shows those implications quite overtly” (Chapman). Hardy, who was a supporter of the Society for Pure English and the vice president of the English association for a time, had an obvious interest in the development of this standard (Chapman). He showed a clear bias for what he refers to in Tess of the d’Urbervilles as “ordinary English” (Hardy 15). This is the language spoken by Hardy’s educated and upper-class characters while his less-educated and lower-class characters tend to speak a regional dialect or a less formal vernacular. In fact, Hardy often uses language to elevate the status of lower-class characters by having them speak “ordinary English” rather than the dialect his readers expect them to speak. Tess provides an example of this. Hardy says that while Tess’s mother “habitually spoke the dialect”, Tess, “who had passed the Sixth Standard in the National School under a London-trained mistress, spoke two languages: the dialect at home, more or less; ordinary English abroad and to persons of quality” (Hardy 15). Tess, it seems, is able to code-switch between her home environment and encounters with higher class characters or “persons of quality.” However, in the following conversation with her mother at home where one would expect Tess to relax into the local dialect, Tess’s speech sounds more like standard English than her mother’s obvious dialect.

Her mother expostulated. “You will never set out to see your folks without dressing up more the dand than that?”

“But I am going to work!” said Tess.

“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Durbeyfield; and in a private tone, “At first there mid be a little pretence o’t… But I think it will be wiser of ‘ee to put your best side outward,” she added.

“Very well; I suppose you know best,” replied Tess with calm abandonment.

And to please her parent the girl put herself quite in Joan’s hands, saying serenely—“Do what you like with me, mother” (Hardy 44).

Hardy clearly uses language as a class marker as well as to identify characters of high moral fiber and/or innocence. According to Curzan, “sociolinguists argue that “the social” is part of “the linguistic”, so social judgments cannot be excluded from the linguistic” (Curzan). Hardy’s use of speech as a marker of morality is an example of linguistic inequality since the reverse suggests that speakers of a dialect are immoral, impure, or have less integrity.

Early critics of Thomas Hardy described his work as everything from “clumsy and inelegant” to “a style which is at once recognized as individual in its simplicity, its strength, its grace” (Chapman). Regardless of whether one admires or detests his novels, Hardy’s lexical reach during a time of great change is evident in his unique characterizations of humans and settings alike with a mix of modern, archaic, and dialectical language. As Hardy said himself, “The most devoted apostle of realism, the sheerest naturalist, cannot escape, any more than the withered old gossip over her fire, the exercise of art in his labor or pleasure of telling a tale” (Correa). Hardy’s artistry with words gave him the strength as a storyteller to elevate the regional novel beyond what had been achieved before.

Works Cited

Asquith, Mark. Thomas Hardy, Metaphysics and Music. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Chapman, Raymond. The Language of Thomas Hardy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.

Correa, Delia da Sousa. The Nineteenth-century Novel: Realisms. Milton Keynes: Routledge, 2000.

Curzan, Anne. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. Glenview: Pearson, 2012.

Douglas Harper. Flexuous. 2018. 29 August 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/word/flexuous#etymonline_v_50618>.

—. Frizzle. 2018. 29 August 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=frizzle>.

Elliott, Ralph W. V. The Language of Thomas Hardy. 2000. 14 August 2018. <https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/06/02/language-thomas-hardy/>.

Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. Seattle: AmazonClassics, 2011. digital book.

—. Return of the Native. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

—. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Nishimura, Satoshi. “Thomas Hardy and the Language of the Inanimate.” Studies in English Literature 1500 – 1900 (2003): 897-912.

Trim, Richard. Metaphor and the Historical Evolution of Conceptual Mapping. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Wakelin, Martyn Francis. “The South West of England.” Varieties of English Around the World 5 (1986).

Weber, Carl J. “Virtue from Wessex.” The American Scholar 8.2 (1939): 216. 20 August 2018. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/41204414>.

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