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Philology: Jane Austen's Language


Admission requirements

A relevant BA degree, with an interest in language and sociolinguistics, and basic linguistic skills.


Jane Austen’s enormous popularity today is evident from films and BBC television series but also from cookery and etiquette books that carry her name in their title. Yet her language is of considerable interest, too. This is evident from her presence in the Oxford English Dictionary, but also from the fact that she is among the earliest authors to record the use of “please” in the language of a servant: Jane Austen must have had a good ear for language. Yet her usage is sometimes also said to be conserative. In this course we will study her language from as many perspectives as possible, and we will do so by treating her as a sociolinguist avant la lettre: how did she distinguish between the language of her different characters? To what extent does the spoken language in her novels reflect actual speech at the time? How does her own usage, as evident from her most intimate letters, relate to the language of her novels? How conservative/advasnced was her usage with respect to certain grammatical features that were in the process of change at the time? How do script writers render the language of her novels? Basic source material for all this will be electronic versions of her novels which we will analyse with the help of the concordancing program WordSmith Tools. Her published letters will serve as input for a comparison of her most private usage with the language of her novels. Primary background reading will consist of Kenneth C. Phillipps’s book Jane Austen’s English (1970), which is no longer available in print. Analyses done during the course will serve to update the information provided by this forty-year old book.

Course objectives

Using Jane Austen as a case study, this course aims to equip students with tools and methodologies to study the language of Late Modern English (and other) authors. Building on insights gained during BA programmes in English language and literature studies, particularly in relation to developments in the history of the language, a critical and objective approach will be adopted that will enable students to study topical questions in historical sociolinguistics. After completion of the course, students will be well equipped to write a master’s thesis in a topic of central interest to this field.


The timetable will be available by June 1st at timetable.

Mode of instruction

A two hour seminar per week.

Assessment method

Presentation and active course participation (30%), final essay (70%).


This course is supported by Blackboard.

Reading list

  • Kenneth C. Phillipps (1970), Jane Austen’s English. London: André Deutch (available in the English Reading of the University Library).

  • Deirdre Le Faye (ed.) (1997), Jane Austen’s Letters [3rd edition]. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press (pb edition).

  • Some additional background reading.


Students should register through uSis.

Contact information

Departmental Office English Language and Culture, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144; mail:
Coordinator of Studies Master: Ms. K. van der Zeeuw-Filemon, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103C.