An analysis of the social portrayal of British speech patterns in print and on screen in Jane Austen’s Emma


Ariane Schwartz


    LING 057

  Language and Popular Culture

         December 13, 2001




In nineteenth-century British literature, authors portray their characters in ways that emphasize particular social assets and weaknesses. A person’s class was scrutinized very carefully at that time, for if a member of the upper-class society detected a hint of a vulgarism in a person’s speech, implying that s/he clearly lacked a similar upbringing, that person would immediately be frowned upon. Mugglestone[1] in the introduction to her study of accent begins with a quotation that summarizes this commonly held view in England at that time:

“ ‘Accent and Pronunciation must be diligently studied by the conversationalist. A person who uses vulgarisms will make but little way in good circles…A proper accent gives importance to what you say, engages the respectful attention of your hearer, and is your passport to new circles of acquaintance.’”


These characteristics often are exaggerated even further when the print version of a novel such as Jane Austen’s works is brought to the screen. At the current time, film producers hope to attract a wider audience to their productions, and therefore they have to exaggerate subtleties of language that reveal character that occur in the print version. My project focuses on how the different British dialects are portrayed both in print and on screen[2] in Jane Austen’s Emma. This story deals with, among other things, the class differences in British society at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and thus serves as a good example to examine the different manners of speech and how they are esteemed and frowned upon by the characters.


Review of the Literature:

Several noted experts on speech and British culture, and scholars of the novel itself, have previously discussed this subject at length. Mugglestone (1995) discusses the characteristics of the accent itself in language and analyzes its position in society. Berendsen (1991) highlights the different characters’ speech patterns and the precise way in which they express themselves in her analysis of the novel itself. There is a discussion of the characteristics of female speech in Emma in Bloom (1987), where a collection of essays treats different critical interpretations of the book. Smith (1986) considers the presence of language and class distinctions in England between 1791 and 1819, a very pertinent topic throughout the novel and film. In addition, three authors detail the distinctive features of British English both used specifically in the nineteenth century and more generally today: Gorlach (1999), Hughes and Trudgill (1979), and Trudgill (1975). Much of the introductory material to the text itself also offers useful information with regard to Jane Austen herself. These sources are useful in accounting for the differences between the class dialects in both the novel and the film.


General introduction to Emma:

Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1816, presents the reader with an in-depth look into how society in England, in particular members of the upper class, interacted both with each other and with those lower than them on the social ladder at that time. Austen set herself apart from the events in the book, as it is written in the third person. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, is a smart, pretty, and clever young woman, whose main objective throughout the book is to search for prospective husbands for her dear female friends. Emma’s closest friend, Mrs. Weston (formerly Miss Taylor), marries at the beginning of the story, and thus Emma searches for a new companion, Harriet Smith, an illegitimate young woman.  Emma’s new scheme consists of trying to match up Harriet with Mr. Elton, a fairly distinguished man in their town, while Harriet herself has her eye on Mr. Robert Martin, a man who is well below both Harriet and Emma on the social ladder. In trying to bring Mr. Elton and Harriet together, Emma realizes that Mr. Elton desires Emma herself instead. Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, condemns her for her matchmaking schemes. Over the course of the story, Emma comes to realize her own faults and desires, and eventually comes to terms with what she has done.


My study:

My study of this issue focuses on the interactions, presented in both book and film form, between Miss Bates, a character of a lower class than Emma Woodhouse and other more upper-class members of that society. I analyze certain scenes from the 1996 film production in order to determine whether the film producers altered what Austen intended in order to exaggerate or emphasize aspects of the characters’ language for viewers, producing an overall effect that makes the book different from the film.

In one scene in the film, Emma and Harriet pay a visit to the home of Miss and Mrs. Bates, two women living in the town, who are below Emma with respect to their social class. The two young women visit the Bateses playing the roles of good Samaritans. Several aspects of Miss Bates’ speech pattern during this individual scene are particularly noticeable (Mrs. Bates essentially does not speak here and only listens). The actress playing Miss Bates begins the scene saying to Emma “What a special, special treat this is. It’s so lovely.” She puts a particular emphasis on the “s” consonant in the words “special” and “so,” almost producing a hissing sound, and over-enunciating them to a degree that it is easily noticed by the viewer. Throughout the scene, she speaks very quickly and displays a rather annoying, high-pitched, shrill laugh after she tells particular anecdotes that she personally happens to think are amusing. At another time in the scene she displays a slight stutter when she is a bit unsure of what she is speaking about.

Present in the scene are Emma, Harriet, Miss Bates, and Mrs. Bates, and it is rather evident from speech patterns observed here that Miss Bates’ speech sharply contrasts with that of Emma and Harriet. In fact Berendsen quotes Rimmon-Kenan as observing “that style of speech may indirectly point to a character origin, dwelling-place, social class, or profession, or even to individual traits of character (1983:64).”[3] The people at that time seem to have thought that good or bad speech reflected inherent character traits, and thus one’s speech habits became an extremely important part of how one was perceived in society. Smith relates the view of Hugh Blair who in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at that time said:

“If speech be the vehicle or interpreter of the conceptions of our minds, an examination of its structure and progress cannot but unfold many things concerning the nature and progress of our conceptions themselves, and the operations of our faculties.”[4]


As for Harriet, her speech is slightly below that of Emma, however, since Harriet is an illegitimate daughter of unknown parents and was brought up in a young woman’s school and at the home of some other lady of a higher social class who “raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder”(15). Emma speaks like the other members of the upper class do, with a refined accent, placing stresses on certain words in appropriate places so as to not draw much attention to them. Austen also remarks that Emma “found [Harriet] altogether very engaging – not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk – and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference”(15). In this passage Austen sets up the reader for the clear contrast in speech with Miss Bates’ speech, shown later in the book at the beginning of Volume Two. Thus Harriet, though of uncertain origin, could speak well, a characteristic that others (such as Miss Bates) did or could not possess. She was born into a lower class than others such as Emma, and nevertheless she learned to speak well, a feature that affected her inherent character traits.

          The producers seem to have elaborated on what material they found in Austen’s text when creating the scene in their film. Austen readily describes Miss Bates as Mrs. Bates’ “more active, talking daughter, almost ready to overpower them with care and kindness, thanks for their visit, solicitude for their shoes, anxious inquiries after Mr. Woodhouse’s health, cheerful communications about her mother’s, and sweet-cake from the beaufet” (118). The producers clearly have taken this description and added conversation and action to it in the film. They stretched out Austen’s participle “talking,” interpreting it to mean that Miss Bates likes to talk a lot, and rapidly, and they thus had the actress playing the role of Miss Bates speak in that manner. When Austen says that Miss Bates thanked Emma and Harriet for their visit, the producers had the character of Miss Bates in the film say her line mentioned above: “What a special, special treat it is. It’s so lovely.” There is some quoted conversation in the text itself, which the producers did in fact use in the film, but they also elaborated on Austen’s descriptions, in order to place more emphasis on one of the few scenes in which the Bateses (especially Miss Bates) are fully portrayed. Since the Bateses are of a lower social class than most characters in the novel and film, the producers wanted to draw out this contrast to the viewer even more by elaborating upon scenes that did not fully occur in the novel itself. The producers also cut out some fairly large chunks of spoken text from the book in this scene, quoted material that is relatively unessential to the central meaning that the producers wish to convey in the scene. For example, Miss Bates delivers a fairly long-winded description of the process of reading a letter from Jane Fairfax, complete with interruptions that she herself makes (indicated by dash-marks). If the producers chose to include this speech in the film, they would perhaps bore the viewer with its never-ending style.

          It is Mugglestone’s thesis that this was a crucial period in British society at that time for the rise of importance of a woman’s accent and of the general manner in which she speaks. Miss Bates was clearly considered on another, lower, social level among the members of the upper class in the novel and film.

“The Proper Lady…tends to be endowed with a heightened awareness of all that was deemed requisite to perfect propriety and decorum of behaviour; any lapses from such elevated standards were, as this indicates, to be viewed with some severity.”[5]


Emma exemplifies this role of a woman in her own society. She is often extremely critical of those around her, noticing every mistake they may make and thus commenting on their general mannerisms, and eventually imparts this behavior to Harriet, her little protégé.  Emma does not exactly view those who do not conform to these standards with any severity, per se, but she does not consider them on her level in any way. Miss Bates, since she does not conform to the social standard of speech for a lady at that time, may indeed have been “viewed with some severity” by other inhabitants of their village not mentioned in the book or film.

Mugglestone also mentions George Vandenhoff’s remarks in his The Lady’s Reader, a work that treats the manner of speaking needed for a woman to be considered as proper in that society.

“ ‘Grace of speech’ is commended highly. Rendering a woman more attractive…it is given as fundamental in ladylike conduct…social propriety, in the thinking of the day, was therefore to be met, and matched, with corresponding proprieties of language. Above all, accent, a feature so important to first impressions, must be carefully controlled.”[6]


The first impression mentioned here is essential to consider regarding the two versions of Emma being discussed. The viewer’s very first impression of Miss Bates is one of a person who is not in the same “class” as Emma. After s/he has heard many others speak in the first parts of the film, the viewer immediately notices the contrast in their speech patterns, especially since Miss Bates tends to ramble with regard to her sentence structure. The discussion of ladylike conduct is also very pertinent. Women tend to be more aware of their speech in modern societies as they always feel the need to improve their social stature. It is a common supposition that women, not men, have the intention of marrying above their own means, as they are usually not the inheritors of wealth. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu remarks:

“Since women are quicker to adopt the legitimate language (or the proper pronunciation) ...especially because they specialize in the domain of consumption (of various products, especially the language) and by the logic of marriage, which is for them the principal route to social mobility, where they move upward, they are predisposed to accept, beginning at school, the new demands of the symbolic capital market.”[7]


Jane Austen’s own background reflects her portrayals of characters in her novel. Born as the seventh of eight children, she had a father who was the rector of their little village in the country of Hampshire in England. She took on her intellectual interests from her father, who was a classical scholar. Although Austen did not have a similar upbringing to that of Emma, as the Woodhouse family held a higher place in society, her actions did in fact mirror those of her main character. She never married, although she was “a pretty girl and a most attractive young woman…she was said to have the quality she especially admired in women, elegance.”[8] Her middle class background made her aware of the social politics of the time, and thus contributed to her scrutiny of her characters and their manners of expression in her novels. As a member of the middle class in England, she was entirely focused on these class issues and how they affected her, and she treated them as significant markers of one’s nature when she created her characters. Clergy and their families have always had the problem of being of the same social class as their middle-class parishioners, but they themselves have not possessed the financial means to keep up socially with that middle-class. Thus, Austen may have created characters whose lives she would have liked to emulate, but could not because of her lack of great financial means in her childhood.



In conclusion, I find that my hypothesis clearly correlates with the findings and remarks of others cited in the literature review. The producers have in fact altered what Austen intended in order to make the story more accessible to the modern viewer and to make clear the important class distinctions that serve as a basis of the general story.  Since the story in book form is a great deal longer than it is in movie form, I also suppose that the producers cut out certain scenes and placed more emphasis on others that prove to be more central to the plot. I have noted that the producers have made up dialogue to insert into particular scenes left simply as description as Austen wrote them in the novel. In order to acquire a fuller understanding of the subject matter at hand, I believe that an even more extensive literature review and an examination of more scenes in this movie and in another 1997 film version of the novel should be performed.



-Austen, Jane. Emma. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957.

          Note: Austen’s Emma was first published in 1816.

-Berendsen, Marjet. Reading Character in Jane Austen’s Emma. Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1991.

-Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations: Emma. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

-Bourdieu, Pierre. Ce que parler veut dire. Paris: Fayard, 1982.

-Gorlach, Manfred. English in Nineteenth-Century England: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

-Hughes, Arthur, and Trudgill, Peter. English Acents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of British English. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1979.

-Mugglestone, Lynda. ‘Talking Proper’ The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

-Smith, Olivia. The Politics of Language: 1791-1819. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

-Trudgill, Peter. Accent, Dialect and The School. London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1975.



-Emma. Dir. Douglas McGrath. USA 1996.

[1] Mugglestone (1995), p. 1.

[2] The particular film version I am using is the 1996 version, one that has been shortened considerably when compared to the length of the book itself.

[3] Berendsen (1991), p. 59-60

[4] Smith  (1986), p. 21

[5] Mugglestone (1995), p. 165

[6] Mugglestone (1995), p. 167

[7] Bourdieu (1982), p. 35

[8] Austen (1957), p. xxv in biographical sketch