Speaking Like A Little Princess

This is the third of a five part series looking at the use of dialect in the three children’s novels written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, who begins as a wealthy child at a fancy London boarding school. She loses her fortune and spends two years as a drudge before having her position restored. During her time as essentially a slave, Sara comes into contact with every level of society, from her wealthy former classmates to a starving homeless girl huddled in the frozen city streets.

Burnett makes deft use of dialect in the book, leaving subtle clues to show when a character is a fluent but non-native speaker of English and writing the distinctive characteristics of the Cockney accent. But as always, she never mocks an accent or does anything to imply that the way someone speaks is automatically tied to their intelligence or virtue. The speech of Burnett’s characters isn’t itself a personality trait, but rather something that helps readers understand more about the background and experiences of the characters using that speech.

Activity: A Discussion about Speech Bias

This activity is appropriate for students old enough to understand the complicated nature of bias against certain kinds of speech. It is not recommended that teachers use this activity for an assignment which will be graded, as that can discourage openness of discussion and the ability to have a nuanced discussion with room for change of opinion.

Lead a discussion in which the children explore how people judge one another based on how they speak. Some judgment is justified, as when a person makes threats or uses language inappropriate to a certain setting. Explore some of the following issues that affect how speech is perceived for better and for worse:

    • regional and foreign accents
    • clean versus vulgar language
    • using technical jargon
    • speech affected by a disability
    • slang distinctive to certain groups which outsiders may not understand
    • affectations such as vocal fry or upspeak
    • use of words that may draw attention to the speaker’s race
    • speech used by those in authority

Try to encourage students to be honest and empathetic. This is not a “right or wrong” discussion but rather an opportunity for everyone to consider the sort of judgments made every day about the speech of others and whether or not these judgments are justified.

Dialect in the Works of Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett was a woman who was knocked down many times in life, but this dual citizen combined her titanium British backbone with her American can-do attitude and made herself the most famous woman in the world. Her status can only be compared to that of J.K. Rowling, and her literary creations were just as much of a social phenomenon.

There isn’t another British or American novelist who addresses issues of social class more directly and thoroughly than Frances Hodgson Burnett. Plenty of authors do address issues of class, but it’s usually just within one narrow layer. shows people at every layer of society, from a starving homeless waif on the streets of London to the heiress of a diamond fortune in her three novels for children: Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. This first episode in a series of five gives an overview of Hodgson’s life and how it gave her a unique perspective on dialect and social class.

Activity: An Autobiography in Dialect

Children usually write a short autobiography at some point in school, but they are almost always instructed to use “proper” standard language. For this writing exercise, encourage students to write in a way that reflects their natural dialect and personal speech patterns. This can include use of slang words, irregular spelling, or creative punctuation to make the writing sound as realistic as possible.

Students can read their autobiographies to one another, providing a chance for students to notice and discuss mannerisms and speech patterns that make a written character more vivid.