The Language of Robert Burns

Alex Broadhead

Style, Ideology, and Identity

252 pages
ISBN 9781611485288

Also available in paperback $39.99

This monograph offers a radical reconceptualisation of the relationship between the poetics and practice of Robert Burns and revaluates the nature of his role in the history of Scots. By drawing on ideas from twenty-first century sociolinguistic theory, it seeks to transform the debate surrounding Burns's language. Through a series of readings that explore the way in which Burns used and commented on the styles associated with different places, groups and genres, it demonstrates how languages, places and the identities associated with both are, in Burns's writing, subject to continual reinvention. In this respect, the study breaks with existing accounts of the subject, insofar as it presents Scots, English and the other languages used by Burns not as fixed, empirically-observable entities, but as ideas that were revised and remade through the poet's work.

Focusing on Burns's poems, songs, letters, prefaces and glossaries, the monograph pays special attention to the complex ways in which the author engaged with such issues as phonology, grammar and the naming of languages. The Burns who emerges from this book is not the marginal figure of traditional accounts - an under-educated poet alienated from the philological mainstream - but rather a well-informed thinker who, more than any other contemporary writer, embodies the creative linguistic spirit of the eighteenth century.

"For most literary scholars, the value of the book may seem to lie in its detailed comments on particular works or passages, but it also lays out a larger case about the language scene in late 18th century Scotland and about Burns' activity and significance for its continuing development."
-Patrick Scott, University of South Carolina, Studies in Scottish Literature, 42:1, Spring 2016

"In this fascinating study, Broadhead (Univ. of Liverpool, UK) presents a picture of Burns (1759-96) that is far removed from the rustic self-educated Scottish peasant who used the Scottish dialect in his poetry because he was not sufficiently sophisticated in his use of English. A scholar of Romanticism, Broadhead takes a 21st-century sociolinguistic approach to show that Burns not only had great command of both English and Scots, but also was a master linguist who manipulated different registers and dialects in his poetry... Writing primarily for those conversant with literary criticism, the author includes easy-to-understand explanations of the linguistic concepts he uses and a wealth of examples from the poetry itself to illustrate his argument effectively."
-D. V. Dominguez, University of Texas at Brownsville, CHOICE (October 2014)

"This study makes an outstanding contribution to the on-going reassessment of the function of language in Robert Burns's literary works .... Broadhead offers a critically nuanced account of the poet's multilingualism and linguistic experimentalism, and one that emphasises Burns's role in initiating not only an 'imaginative reconceptualization of [...] the language of Scottish literature' (72-3), but also a 'radical revaluation of poetic language' that subsequently influenced the linguistic thinking of Shelley and Wordsworth (171). In the process, Broadhead succeeds both in offering a new perspective on the linguistic complexity of Burns's literary endeavours and in illuminating the centrality of language in the poet's cultural and literary legacies."
- Christopher Donaldson, Lancaster University, The BARS Review, No. 48 (Autumn 2016)

About the author:

Alex Broadhead is a University teacher at the University of Liverpool.


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