Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Language of Queen Elizabeth I

A Sociolinguistic Perspective on Royal Style and Identity


Mel Evans


Publications of the Philological Society, 46

Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

Paperback. iv+262 p. ISBN 978-1118672877. £22.99


Reviewed by Anni Sairio

University of Helsinki



This is a meticulous and concise study of a historical idiolect in the framework of historical sociolinguistics. The broad selection of studies draws from the multi-genre corpus Evans has compiled of the correspondence, speeches and translations of Queen Elizabeth I from 1544 to 1603. Evans’s decision to investigate an idiolect in the full range of the individual’s linguistic repertoire must be applauded, given that this is not necessarily the approach that a historical sociolinguist would take: this starting point distinguishes the work from traditional (macro-level) historical sociolinguistics, in which correspondence is the primary material of choice. The purpose of the book is to investigate change, variation and stability in the language of Elizabeth I with regard to her life events and macro-level developments in Early Modern English: thanks to Evans’s critical eye and her in-depth, interdisciplinary approach, the outcome is a balanced and convincing selection of studies which make a valuable addition to scholarly literature of Good Queen Bess.

The small, carefully compiled data set (78,000 words) has been put to good use with the quantitative and qualitative investigations of a range of morphosyntactic and orthographical features. The corpus-linguistic research is contextualised with regard to social and stylistic factors (recipients if applicable, various contexts of writing, diachrony), and the results are compared with baseline data provided by previous studies (particularly the Corpus of Early English Correspondence, Helsinki Corpus, and the Corpus of English Dialogues). Overall, the work is very well connected with previous research on Early Modern English and adds to what we know of, for example, the social meaning of spelling in this period.

The studies show that Queen Elizabeth’s idiolect went through rapid and significant changes over her lifespan. The purpose was to discover, for one thing, whether her accession to the throne had an impact in her language use: this was shown to be the case to some extent, but a key variable turns out to be age. Evans posits that Elizabeth’s education made her receptive to new forms in her youth and encouraged the stylistic sensitivity which is so evident in her linguistic repertoire. For example, the high frequency of negative do (‘they do not comprehend’) in pre-accession translations may reflect an attempt to recreate contemporary literary styles in this genre. Evans’s in-depth analysis shows what previous research has indicated – Elizabeth was considerably progressive in her language use, and she frequently leads in language change from above. Elizabeth aligned herself with the literary styles of contemporary male writers rather than women, whose linguistic influence is visible only before her accession to the throne; gender is, of course, inextricably linked to questions of power and privilege. Elizabeth’s pre-accession language change from below is convincingly interpreted as identity and group membership construction in the female-dominated community of practice in that period. The findings also support previous research which suggests that an individual can participate in language change in different ways on the leadership—laggard continuum.

Evans has carried out the first systematic study of Elizabeth’s spelling, which is shown to be relatively conventional and to become more consistent over time. Evans has devised a methodology for the analysis of orthographical idiolect, which can be applied for other types of data and time periods. As a historical sociolinguist with a particular interest in spelling variation, I found this section of the book especially useful.

The linguistic analyses are then applied to assess the authorship of a selection of texts attributed to Elizabeth. This section is interesting, complex and ambitious, and while Evans points out that the set of studies do not, of course, form the queen’s linguistic fingerprint, the case studies provide a useful look into how texts of dubious authorship that have been attributed to Elizabeth can be evaluated on the basis of morphosyntactic and orthographical patterns in her language use.

In line with many current sociolinguistic studies, the significance of style and stylistic variation emerges strongly from this work. Evans shows that idiolect research benefits from the inclusion of various genres as data, as the cross-genre analysis of Queen Elizabeth’s letters, speeches and translations revealed the significance of style variation in the queen’s language which letters alone did not point to. In order for this kind of multi-genre approach to be more easily applicable in historical sociolinguistics, I would have found it helpful to have some concrete methodological consideration of how to align genres such as essays or translations with the historical sociolinguist’s traditional choice of material.

I recommend this work to scholars specialising in Elizabeth I, regardless of their discipline; historical and present-day sociolinguists working particularly with idiolect research; and those interested in historical spelling variation and historical authorship attribution.


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.