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I'm Japanese and I can read Dickens' works now, but with a great deal of effort. It can't be helped, I'm willing to admit btw.

I'm wondering how easily native English speakers can read his works. Is a dictionary necessary because they contain a lot of obsolete words? If so, what dictionary do you prefer when reading his works or other writers' classics?

I'd be glad if you would answer my question.

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    I don't think Dickens uses many obsolete words, but he often expresses himself in an indirect way and refers to things which are not common knowledge today. I love Dickens, but many people who are not enthusiastic readers find his unabridged works impossibly slow and long-winded. Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 9:27
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    I agree that native speakers who are enthusiastic readers should not have too much trouble with Dickens. I vividly remember a summer cold I had aged 9. My mother made me curl up on a sofa and fed me Heinz vegetable soup. For company I had Great Expectations. Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 12:30
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    You can read Dickens? Fantastic. Try to look for Dickens that is annotated with notes that explain antiquated words, idioms and so on. Most importantly keep reading. Keep reading. You will do fine.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 23:13
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    @alphabet - I would hesitate to call 'wittles' an 'intentional typo' (if that is what you meant). Cockneys really did talk like that in those days. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 11:26
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    @alphabet - Wittles is not a typo, intentional or otherwise. Victuals, an old term for food, is pronounced vittles, and, as Michael says, apparently in Dickens' time Cockneys often confused 'v' and 'w'. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 17:00

6 Answers 6

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Dickens is generally pretty readable. I can read Dickens without special assistance, but occasionally I would need help with the historical associations, eg this line from Two Cities

France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it

"sister of the shield and trident" is "England (personified by Britannia) and the mention of paper money is in contrast to the gold money used in Britain at that time. Nowadays, "paper money" is common, but it wasn't so at that time. The metaphor of "rolling down hill" (modern English would have "downhill") refers to the poverty that followed the French revolution.

I would say that I understand more than 99% of the text. But the language is difficult. It uses figurative language, and rare words like "magnificent potentate" and "wretched pilferer". I would expect many native children, or most non-native learners to struggle.

For comparison, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver) I need a good glossary. I understand (perhaps) 95%. Shakespeare: I need line-by-line help. I understand about 80%. Chaucer: I understand 50%. Beowulf: I understand 5%. Virgil (in Latin) I can probably guess about 1%

For Dickens I'd probably use a regular dictionary, if required. I would want an edition that had footnotes or similar to help with the historical context. For the older authors I'd use a specialist dictionary, or depend on the notes in the book. Most editions that are "for students" will have supplementary notes.

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    As with Twain, dialect speech can be impenetrable to nonnatives: “That’s acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley to make ’em come down again,” said Gamfield; “that’s all smoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain’t o’ no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, and that’s wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, Gen’l’men, and there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ’em come down vith a run. It’s humane too, gen’l’men, acause, even if they’ve stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ’em struggle to hextricate theirselves.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 23:27
  • @tchrist that does seem totally impenetrable to nonnatives, though as a native it's actually not too difficult.
    – ErikE
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 1:50
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    @ErikE, it can still be easier to understand than actual spoken English. At least I can take my if I need to.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 16:03
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    @AndyClark So long as you know that "victuals" is pronounced "vittles" :)
    – ErikE
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 6:07
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    Actually, paper money isn’t very common these days. Nearly all money is electronic, with only a very small minority being in the form of paper.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 4:01
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I don't have a problem with Dickens. He wrote in the mid to late 1800s and, based on the other books I've read from that period it seems written English by that time had already become what we are familiar with as "modern English" - identical in spelling, structure, grammar, form, vocabulary, etc to what we have today.

Anyone who is fairly well read won't have a problem with the vocabulary of Dickens. To be frank I have a much bigger problem with the vocabulary of modern sci-fi writer Jack Vance because he uses obscure words that probably few people were using even in the 1800s.

My guess is any English literature from prior to the early 1800s is going to be substantially different than the modern English that we're used to and would be more difficult.

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    I read many 'classics' as a child. I got used to the language and after a while had no more difficulty reading them than more modern works. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 22:45
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    @chasly I think how much being "well-read" will help also depends on what they've read: if they've only read modern American works, the combination of British idioms, unusual/archaic words, and indirect phrasing all would make it very difficult. As native speakers, we have an advantage in that we've almost certainly been exposed to at least one or two of those, and our familiarity with the language lets us intuit meaning based on the flow or rhythm of the sentence. Non-native speakers who don't have any of that cultural foundation, might well struggle considerably more.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:49
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    @Aos Sidhe - Yes, I quite agree. We also have access to folklore, metaphors, local knowledge that a non-native may never have met. We certainly have a head start - even as children. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:53
  • British Masterpiece Theater, mini-series, TV shows, all help because many of these are based on the older classic literature. I grew up watching these things because my parents were into it, so I'm sure that helped with my ability to read classic British literature (from the mid-1800s+) .... In contrast to this, I do have a very hard time understanding stuff like Shakespeare that was written before 1800. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 23:51
  • The History of Tom Jones is considered one of the first English-language novels (1740), and is not that hard to read, although it might be slower going as you parse through some unfamiliar sentence structures. Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Eyre (1847) are also relatively easy to read. Things get more difficult in the 17th century due to vocabulary and spelling shifts (A Counterblaste to Tobacco is probably a better reference point than Shakespeare). But English prose writing has been fairly consistent since then. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 18:53
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I am also going to say yes and no, the people in this forum who are saying it is easy are a self selecting group of people who are good at English.

I am going to imagine my less bookish friends trying to read it, the language constructs have changed. The imagery has changed so metaphors especially will be difficult. References to social norms won’t immediately click with a modern reader.

Modern readers can find victorian novels too long winded and verbose. With as you say outdated language.

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Yes and no. Ability to understand isn't the same as ability to read. Think of the difference as the difference between reading the book out loud and the ability to understand what was said. You can have perfect pronunciation, but understand nothing of what is written.

I am taking a couple diversions here, but they relate directly to your question.

A book I read in Danish

When I was learning Danish in Denmark, we had to read Babette's Dinner (Da:Babettes Gæstebud). Important note: I read this book in Danish. The understanding of the book can be radically different, depending on your understanding of a few passages. My teacher, an formally trained artist, well educated and intelligent, who's mother tongue is Danish, insisted the guests were sober and the book was only about the difference between values. It is worth noting, it isn't about the difference between social classes. I disagreed, and I read up a single passage. They stumbled and crawled through the snow returning home. This one point, that they were clearly drunk at the end of the dinner, changed my teacher's understanding of the book.

The assumption is, the native speaker knows best, and I likely misunderstood the passage. However, I read the book with care, and understood if they acted drunk at the end of the dinner, they likely drank a good deal of wine at dinner. It is also supported by a central passage in the book, a drunkenly philosophical passage about beauty through beer goggles. Understanding this point was dependent on how carefully I read the book, and ability to reason if B, then A.

Likewise, Dickens can be understood if you read the book with care and are able to make logical inferences and deductions. Those are skills that do not automatically come with reading a book in one's native language. Reading the book with care in your second language is one skill you can develop in your native language. Drawing logical conclusions is a different skill you can develop in your native language.

The American LSAT

Law schools in the U.S. require you have both an undergraduate degree and take the LSAT.

  • Any undergraduate degree qualifies
    • B.Sc
    • B.A.
    • B.A.S
  • Any major qualifies
    • Pre-Law
    • Any STEM major
    • Any Arts major
    • Any Business major
  • The LSAT is the Law School Admission Test
    • Your score is dependent on your ability to reason
    • Your score is dependent on your ability to read
    • Your score ranks you against other applicants
    • Your score is a big factor if you get into law school
    • A lot of information about you is recorded when you take the LSAT Because your undergraduate degree and its major is recorded, there is a ranking of majors by score on the LSAT. The common assumption is pre-law, which is the only pathway to study law in most other countries I know about, will take first place by average LSAT score. Truth is, I do not remember if it is even in the top 100 majors, because it certainly isn't in the top 10, top 20, or top 30. Truth is, many arts majors place higher than pre-law. And an important truth is, the top two majors by LSAT score are mathematics and physics. The last time I looked at the ranking, those two majors were tied at 160 points.

The lesson here is, legal reasoning is heavily affected by subjects that are the same in all languages. Reasoning is heavily affected by aptitude other than linguistic skill. It isn't everyone who can easily reason, or reason at all, so a book such as Dickens may be a difficult read for a native English speaker, while a non-native speaker who can easily reason will find it a light read.

The two skills you need to read Dickens are the ability to read carefully, and ability to reason. Your skill in English is less important.

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    You need period vocabulary and class vocabulary and familiarity with British customs. These are sine qua non.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 19:24
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    Discendo discimus. You learn period vocabulary while learning by reading the book itself. Scientia se pascit. Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 20:25
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Ampan-san, Well done reading Dickens. I enjoy his books, but they do require a bit of effort. Have you seen this article Edging Toward Japan: A Straight Line leads from Dicken's London to Murakami's Tokyo?

One difficulty is that society has changed a lot since he wrote. Dickens died on 9 June 1870, which would be near the start of the Meiji era. There are words that are unfamiliar, but they often refer to concepts that are unfamiliar: workhouse, debtors' prison, and the like. Dickens wasn't only a successful writer: he was a social reformer, who many things in his own society, such as the shameful treatment of the poor. Dickens frequently ridicules his bad characters, and exaggerates. You need to understand this when you read him. We have a word "Dickensian", which is used as a criticism: is we say that the conditions for workers is "Dickensian", it indicates disapproval. (Even though Dickens frequently describes happy occasions, we would not use the word "Dickensian" to describe them). Dickens frequently mocks unpleasant characters by describing them from their own point of view.

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This question can't be answered, without noticing the elephant in the room:

General literacy and linguistic skills, both spoken and written, have tumbled incredibly in the last 10-20 years, in the English-speaking countries.

If you're talking about people born after (say) 1990, they struggle to read any book.

They can barely struggle through any short, simple novel. Doesn't matter if it's Victorian or not.

The sense of your question is about the grammar, vocab, slang, references, etc, in Victorian novels. For any English speaker born before - say - 1980, it's no issue.

But for the English speaking world, born after say 1990, no, they can't read a Victorian novel (and they can barely read Harry Potter or such.)

Recall that people born after about 2000 can't, for example, read a clock with hands, or recite the alphabet or the months of the year. So there's a major break in the answer to your question depending on which historical cohort you're talking about.

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    In other news: people born in 2023 can't even talk! Such a terrible decline.
    – fdomn-m
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:42
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    This is more a tirade against 'the youths these days' than an answer. "People born after 1990…struggle to read any book. They can barely struggle through any short, simple novel." [Citation Needed] Not to mention that there are plenty of complex (and new) genres: books like House of Leaves or the massively-popular SCP wiki both demand far more of a reader than any Victorian novel, and yet they've become incredibly popular in the past few years—with the latter often written by post-90s people.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 14:55
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    I know a lot of people born much earlier who struggle with understanding any short, simple user manual (or even a basic popup message). Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:13
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    "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint."--Hesiod - c.a. 700BCE Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 19:07
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    Look, this is all opinion. But all told, I agree with this 100% and the downvoters are obviously [you fill in the blank] . Cheers. It really gets up my nose this kind of downvoting.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 20:34

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