Investigating how language has changed in children's literature; in relation to interaction between children and characters of authority in a boarding school setting.

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Stories of children at boarding schools have always been a popular genre choice amongst both young and young adult readers. They emulate scenarios that children can identify with, more specifically the relationships between the students and their teachers/head teachers. As a result the language used must convince the reader thoroughly of the role that the author has intended that character to play. The purpose of my investigation is to explore the language devices used in modern literature using books sparring over 40 years; to analyse language change and the use of certain language features in relation to power.

     Table 1: Books chosen for comparison

Hypothesis: There will be the greatest difference in language between Tom Brown’s School Days and Harry Potter—the author will favour shorter, simple sentences, and use more modern terms. There will also be a decrease in the frequency of adjective use in speech exchange but not in initial description, as the texts become more modern. The students will gradually use more colloquial speech patterns, but the formality of the authoritative character’s speech will remain the same. The relationship between student and teacher will have steadily become more familiar over time between pupil and teacher; this shift in status demonstrates the changing social perception of authoritative figures in modern society from an austere distant relationship to a more supportive role. This shift will be demonstrated by the presence of features such as personal pro-nouns and directives. There will be noticeable differences between the language used to describe female authoritative characters compared to male, but similar language will be used to reflect power.


        I selected books I believed that I could draw a parallel between; books based around boarding schools (Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone is mixed, while the other three texts are single sex schools). I intend to analyse the first description of the authoritative characters/teachers to see how the author uses language to establish the feeling of power and status, and how this has changed over time. To further investigate this I will analyse an interaction between the teachers and the lead character. I chose extracts based on similar contexts—a personal meeting. I plan to use acknowledged frameworks (Table 2) to support analysis of the extracts.

Table 2: Acknowledged frameworks


Initial description of ‘The Doctor’ [Thomas Arnold] by ‘East’ [p125– 126 Tom Brown’s School Days]

“        The tall gallant form, the kindling eye, the voice, now as soft as the low notes of a flute, now clear and stirring as the call of the light infantry bugle, [….]

It was not the cold, clear voice of one giving advice and warning from serene heights to those who were struggling and sinning below, but the warm, living voice of one who was fighting for us and by our sides, and calling on us to help him and ourselves and one another. And so, wearily and little by little, but surely and steadily on the whole, was brought home to the young boy, for the first time, the meaning of his life — that it was no fool's or sluggard's paradise into which he had wandered by chance, but a battlefield ordained from of old, where there are no spectators, but the youngest must take his side, and the stakes are life and death. And he who roused this consciousness in them showed them at the same time, by every word he spoke in the pulpit, and by his whole daily life, how that battle was to be fought, and stood there before them their fellow-soldier and the captain of their band — the true sort of captain, too, for a boy's army — one who had no misgivings, and gave no uncertain word of command, and, let who would yield or make truce, would fight the fight out (so every boy felt) to the last gasp and the last drop of blood. Other sides of his character might take hold and influence boys here and there; but it was this thoroughness and undaunted courage which, more than anything else, won his way to the hearts of the great mass of those on whom he left his mark, and made them believe first in him and then in his Master.”

Initial description of ‘Miss Loy’ by ‘Cynthia’ [p39 – School Girl Chums]

“        “There’s Miss Loy, in the blue frock, coming in last.”

        I looked eagerly towards the dais, and I was instantly attracted by what I saw.

        Miss Loy was surprisingly young! I remembered Daddy’s words, and fully endorsed them as I looked at the head-mistress of one of the most important girls’ schools in England. Her hair was of shining gold, and, though it was swathed in a sort of turban round her head, it rippled into curls on her forehead. Her eyes were large and intensely blue, like those very vivid forget-me-nots which grow by the riverside. She wore a blue frock too, of a very soft pastel shade, very simply made, with a broad collar and old lace; and she looked much too pretty and jolly to be a disciplinarian – to use Daddy’s pet word.”

Initial description of ‘Miss Potts’ by ‘Darrell’ [p2 – First Term at MT]

“        The gay voices sounded all up and down the platform. Darrell looked for her mother. Ah, there she was talking to a keen-faced mistress. That must be Miss Potts. Darrell stared at her. Yes, she liked her – she liked the way her eyes twinkled – but there was something very determined about her mouth. It wouldn’t do to get into her bad books.”

Initial description of ‘Albus Dumbledore’ by JK Rowling [p12 – Harry Potter TPS]

“        Nothing like this man had ever been seen in Privet Drive. He was tall, thin and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak which swept the ground and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.

        Albus Dumbledore didn’t seem to realise that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome. He was busy rummaging in his cloak, looking for something. But he did seem to realise he was being watched because he looked up suddenly at the cat, which was still staring at him from the other end of the street. For some reason, the sight of the cat seemed to amuse him. He chuckled and muttered, ‘I should have known.’

1. Discourse

In order to analyse these texts effectively, their context must first be taken into account. All are taken from the initial chapters’ narrative texts (the exception being the description of “The Doctor”).

  •                All are based on the ‘boarding-school’ genre, though are not entirely identical as Harry Potter is more fantasy, while Tom Brown’s School Days is based on real events i.e. the headmaster who is described in the initial description was a real man, and the text is based on true facts, as the author did himself attend ‘Rugby School’. Much of the book is based on these experiences, though the character ‘Tom’ is loosely based on his brother, rather than himself.
  •               The content of Harry Potter and Tom Brown’s School Days means that their audience is slightly broader than Malory Towers or School Girl Chums which are most likely to be aimed at a female audience as they are based is in female boarding schools. This affects language, vocabulary and the generic slang used.
  •             All four texts were written with the intended audience to be similar ages of the children they are about. The age range was is similar in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, ranging from around nine to fifteen year olds, and this can be seen from the simplicity of the lexis and the story being easy to follow. In comparison, Tom Brown’s School Days (based on the context of the story) is likely to mainly be directed at a male audience, but the elevated lexis and complex sentence structure narrows it to a slightly older teenage age group.
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2. Grammar

From the initial analysis of Figure 1 it can be seen that sentence construction in the description of characters has altered from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) to Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (1997).

Figure 1 – Comparison of sentence type in initial description of character


  •                Given the bulk of the text in Tom Brown’s School Days, and as a result of such long and complex sentences, the author relies heavily on description and imagery to aid fluency ...

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***** 5 STARS An outstanding piece of independent research. The investigation is logically structured, the visual graphs are easy to read. The writer consistently works toward answering the questions in the hypothesis and consistently closely analyses language, form and content using a wide range of appropriate terminology to discuss various techniques. Well written and intelligently argued - this is an interesting and outstanding piece of individual research.