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Home arrow Zeitschrift > Blog arrow Archiv arrow 02 (2007) arrow Rezension: Elizabeth V. Doolittle: A Compendium of London English (ACOLE)
Rezension: Elizabeth V. Doolittle: A Compendium of London English (ACOLE) E-Mail

Book review:

Elizabeth V. Doolittle: A Compendium of London English (ACOLE), London 2007.

Anne-Karoline Distel ,


The series Female Pioneers in the Sciences and Humanities published by Rowtledge in London was established to honour early female scientists and scholars who have prepared the way for innovative methods in both science and the humanities. In the series, new editions as well as recently discovered and yet unpublished manuscripts are being made available to a broad audience. One example of the latter category are the papers of Elizabeth V. Doolittle, a philologist of the first half of the 20th century. Ms. Doolittle unfortunately died of diphtheria when she was only 38 years old. Her studies on London English were forgotten after her death but the almost finished manuscript was fortunately discovered in 1999 and was quite a sensation as they present the reader with such voluminous material that it is hard to believe how the author was able to achieve such extensive work in her short life-time. Ms. Doolittle had been a pupil of Prof. Henry Higgins, the well-known phonetician, and Colonel Ernest Pickering, the expert of Indian dialects, by whom she was trained in phonetics and dialectology. Other than with Prof. Higgins she did not use her thorough knowledge of dialects and accents to teach correct pronunciation to social climbers but dedicated her studies entirely to the academic field. Her methods were drawn from her experiences with Prof. Higgins but were advanced beyond this by Ms Doolittle. As attested by Prof. Higgins, she had a very fine ear and could mimic the people she had encountered perfectly well. She employed these abilities when talking to her subjects of study. As she recounts in her preface, for reasons of research, she often dressed up as a lady of easy virtue, a common market woman or even a duchess, in order to enter the appropriate circles of society. She then adjusted her language to the specific circles so as not to raise any suspicion about her motifs. By this method she collected material from almost all circles of society, especially on the language of female Londoners.
In the ACOLE, in contrast to the works of Prof. Higgins, she not only gives examples of pronunciation to distinguish the social groups and their language but also dwells on the whole range of grammar in a surprisingly scientific way.
The book is divided into: an introduction into London societies (with a historic overview on the development of the same), anecdotal chapters about each different layer of society and a chapter of a more speculative kind about gender differences in language. In the introduction, the book dwells on geographical migration patterns important to the language of London as well as social migration. Ms. Doolittle never made a secret of the fact that she herself had ascended from the lower parts of London society. However, throughher phonetic teaching from Prof. Higgins and the education achieved via Colonel Pickering she accomplished passing as a duchess within six months.
In the chapters dedicated to the several languages (she never calls them 'dialects', but always 'languages', because, as she says she "had to learn the language of the high society like a foreign language", p. 12), Ms. Doolittle first presents examples of her conversations in Higgins' Universal Alphabet, followed by a transcription. The transcription makes the book worthwhile reading even for non-philologists, as it is highly entertaining. Each chapter ends with a most systematic analysis of the material presented. Possible explanations of the different developments and the dissemination of linguistic features are given. However, as Ms. Doolittle was a philologist rather than a historian, some of these hypotheses are unconvincing.
Her chapter on gender differences remained incomplete but was nevertheless added to the edition to present her work as complete as possible.
For the contemporary reader, in addition to the philological achievements, it represented a Speculum societatis Londonensis with all its nuances, where everybody might have been able to find themselves. For today's reader a historical notion is added. A livelier socio-linguistic and socio-cultural picture of London of the 1920's and 30's could not be drawn.


  • Elizabeth V. Doolittle: A Compendium of London English (ACOLE), London 2007, 704 pages, with maps.
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