Portrait of George Borrow

George Borrow as a Linguist : Images and Contexts by Ann M. Ridler

This is a revised and re-typeset version of the author’s doctoral thesis of 1983.

The thesis derives from three lines of argument: first, Borrow was a remarkable linguist whose interest in a hundred languages and dialects can be demonstrated, but it is more instructive to explore his characteristics as a linguist than his proficiency, since the evidence for the latter is too patchy, whereas study of his many-faceted image as a linguist illuminates both his life and the impact of his literary interests on his major works. Secondly, Saintsbury’s argument, subsequently perpetuated, that Borrow was not of any particular time, is no longer valid: Borrow was imbued to a remarkable degree with the attitudes and presuppositions of his time. Thirdly, his reputation as a linguist has not been high, yet his lifelong studies in languages must have had value for himself: his spiritual autobiography, Lavengro, was “a dream of study and adventure”, and the “dream of study” has been unduly neglected.

These arguments underlie a succession of images of the linguist within a range of contexts: the self-portrait, the image projected by his critics, the linguist as a young man, as ‘philosopher’ and interpreter, as classicist, antiquarian, persuader and cosmopolitan, seen in the contexts, respectively, of his own narratives, the development of language studies, his fragmented education and the cultural environment of Norwich and London, the legacy of attitudes and ideas from the past, the continuing interest in the classics, interest in mediaeval and northern themes associated with nationalism and comparative studies, the policies and practices of the Bible Society, and the cosmopolitanism of Borrow’s day, which had both social and literary aspects.

Such a wide-ranging study could not hope to be comprehensive, but aims to reinstate Borrow as a literary figure of considerable interest and to indicate possible lines for future research.

The following are the main chapter headings covering various aspects of Borrow as a linguist:

1. The linguist’s self-portrait

(1)   Early development

(2)   The linguist abroad

(3)   The linguist in Britain: the later years

2. Borrow’s reputation

(1)   As student of Romani

(2)   As philologist

(3)   As translator

3. The linguist as a young man: formative experiences

(1)   Education 1811-19

(2)   Norwich 1816-33

(3)   London literary life 1824-31

4.    Attitudes and ideas

(1)   The linguist as ‘philosopher’: Borrow’s debt to the past

(2)   The linguist as interpreter: Borrow’s approach to translation

5. The classical inheritance and its continuing relevance

6. The linguist as antiquarian

(1)   Antiquarian sources

(2)   Celtic origins

(3)   Runic inscriptions and epitaphs

(4)   Heroes and prophets

(5)   The magic of names

7.   The linguist as persuader: Borrow and the Bible Society

(1)   The British and Foreign Bible Society            

(2)   Russia 1833-35                            

(3)   Portugal and Spain 1835-40                  

8.   The linguist as cosmopolitan                       

(1)   The linguist as citizen of the world               

(2)   The philological journey                       

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Printed for private circulation in an edition limited to 100 copies, as a substantial A4 paperback, 516 pp., 1996. Price £48.00 + postage. Cheques should be made payable to Ann M. Ridler.

Dr Ann M. Ridler
61 Thame Road
OX10 7EA