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I am not a native speaker of English. Though I have learned the language well enough to comprehend modern English novels fairly well, when it comes to Charles Dickens I am completely defeated. It is rather difficult to get through his uses of words, phrases, and punctuation.

Does a native speaker face the same difficulty while reading Dickens? Do I have to learn English afresh? Are there shortcomings in my learning?

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    Personally, as writers go, I don’t think Dickens has a reputation for impenetrability. It’s hard to think of adjectives to describe his prose. It’s certainly verbose, but the storytelling is very straightforward. Obviously, there is a lot of coloration in the dialogue of British period colloquial language. I guess a native speaker can infer the meaning of Oldspeak far easier than a second language learner. Dickens is similar to other Victorian era writers in their diction being relatively expansive Apr 10 at 20:27
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    yet it all really being almost an exercise in finding artful synonyms for basic, relatable concepts. I think the only effort a native English speaker reading Dickens needs to make is taking a tour through the dictionary. As a second language learner you should just study the vocabulary scrupulously as well as the old-fashioned idioms. To be clear, Dickens is very much modern English and does not appear unintelligible in the way that a writer like Shakespeare sometimes does or far worse a very old writer like Chaucer. Apr 10 at 20:28
  • It would be interesting to know which Dickens work you struggled with.
    – mikado
    Apr 12 at 7:05
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    Little Dorrit By charles dickens
    – anjan
    Apr 12 at 10:04
  • On summer holiday from school when I was aged 9, I had a bad cold and lay about the house for three days. I spent that time reading Great Expectations. It was my first exposure to really good writing. Next came Pickwick, which still makes me laugh out loud 60 years later, after maybe a dozen readings. Jun 15 at 10:47

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There will be things which many modern readers may not understand without going and looking it up, for example:

Dialects: Dickens frequently has characters use class or regional dialects, with their own ‘not standard English’ vocabularies. Often the less familiar words will be explained for the reader in the text. e.g in David Copperfield Mr. Peggotty describes David and Em’ly as being 'like two young mavishes', the older David who is narrating explains for us that he 'knew this meant, in our local dialect, like two young thrushes, and received it as a compliment'.

It is also likely that many readers would still know that ‘mavis’ is a mostly obsolete term for the bird we all call a ‘thrush’ these days.

Elsewhere we may be left to decipher a dialect or less formal speech register for ourselves, for example in Bleak House, Jo says:

‘And she ses to me' do it,' and I dun it, and she giv me a sov'ring and hooked it’.

Most British readers would have no difficulty mentally translating this to

‘And she says to me ‘do it’, and I done it, and she give me a sovereign and hooked it’

and in turn interpreting that as

‘And she said to me ‘do it,’ and I did it, and she gave me a sovereign and left’.

Matters are confused by Jo using a present tense when speaking about an event in the past, but I interpret this as narrator’s licence, giving an immediacy to his telling, and this is still a feature in British English and there is probably a technical name for it, of which I am unaware. Edit: @GarethRees advises in comments that this is the Historical Present tense which Wikipedia also calls the Dramatic Present or Narrative Present.

If native speakers aren’t familiar with ‘hooked it’ meaning left, they may still be familiar with ‘playing hooky’ as a term meaning playing truant from school, or ‘to sling one’s hook’ meaning ‘to go away’.

People might get tripped up by an earlier reference in the same passage to ‘by a lady in a wale’, but once you become familiar with the fact that Dickens often gives his Cockney characters the habit of replacing ‘v’ with ‘w’, and you read it phonetically, you get ‘a lady in a veil’. The V/W switch for Cockneys is a subject of much debate, Dickens wasn’t the only writer to describe this, but it is difficult to know if what they were hearing was cockneys making a sound that was neither quite V now W or something else was going on.

Regardless of the origin, if you come across words like ‘wery’ and ‘wittles’ in Dickens, they mean ‘very’ and ‘victuals’.

Current Events: where Dickens references events and concerns which were current in his time. For example, on this Stack we’ve had a couple of recent questions which required a bit of unpicking of Dicken’s personal views on Prison and Justice Reform. Some people will know about that, some people will make a guess and miss Dickens actual intended meaning (in answering one of those questions I initially went down a bit of a blind alley myself because I thought I knew what Dicken’s views were, and it turned out I didn’t), though these will tend to occur in more polemic passages and not impinge on understanding of the main plot.

Otherwise, sometimes Dickens’ vocabulary is no longer fully current, he might make reference to types of carriage, articles of clothing, occupations, currency denominations, legal instruments, foodstuffs and other items which now require a little more than general knowledge to fully understand, but these are seldom crucial to the plot.

English changes according to time, place and station in life of the user. We are looking back at Dickens through a lens over 100 years thick, most of us probably need to use some degree of external resource to fully comprehend every passage.

What resources one might find useful depends which book you are reading and what aspect of it you are having trouble with. In any case there is no defined set of resources I am aware of to point you to. Work through the text methodically and when you have worked out what kind of problem you have having, search for resources accordingly.

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    "probably a technical name for it" — historical present Apr 11 at 18:41
  • @GarethRees Thank you, I spent ages looking for it and closest I could get was Footballers Tense! Which I knew wasn't right.
    – Spagirl
    Apr 12 at 8:29
  • Sir, what are those external resources?
    – anjan
    Apr 12 at 10:14
  • @anjan I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear what I was suggesting, which is that it depends which book you are reading and what aspect of it you are having trouble with. In any case there is no defined set of resources I am aware of to point you to. Work through the text methodically and when you have worked out what kind of problem you have having, search for resources accordingly. people will always be happy to consider a well asked question on this site, and if they issue is with use of Language you may also get some help on the English Language and Usage or English Language learners Stacks.
    – Spagirl
    Apr 12 at 10:36
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If I recall correctly, at my school in the 1970s, in what was part of a fairly traditional English education, A Christmas Carol was a set text at the age of 12, David Copperfield at 14, and Great Expectations at 15.

I don't imagine that modern teenagers would be expected to cope with them, or find them very exciting.

These are probably some of the more approachable of Dickens's works. In particular, A Christmas Carol has the virtue of being short, with a simple and well-known story.

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