Historical sociolinguistics – how and why?

Having established in the previous post that sociolinguistics is a broad discipline that encompasses issues of language and society, it is not too much of a leap for us to imagine that we can study language and society in the past as well as the present. Sociolinguistics has a wide scope in terms of its sub-disciplines and also the timespan it can cover. Historical sociolinguistics naturally focuses on language and society in the past. This means that a certain number of practical issues arise for historical sociolinguistics scholars that do not exist in the same way for contemporary sociolinguists. In this post I shall outline just a few of these practical issues in an attempt to address the question: ‘So, how and why do you actually do historical sociolinguistics?’.

To begin addressing this question, we should establish exactly what historical sociolinguistics has in common with contemporary sociolinguistics, before highlighting the practical difficulties and how we overcome these. Historical sociolinguistics (sometimes called socio-historical linguistics) benefits being informed by modern sociolinguistic theory, in particular the uniformitarian principle – ‘the working assumption that the fundamental principles and mechanisms of language variation and change are valid across time’ (Auer et al. 2015: 4). Here we encounter our first problem, since we do not want to impose modern concepts onto past societies and languages anachronistically. Being aware of this pitfall, historical sociolinguistic scholars attempt to overcome this by examining each case individually (Auer et al. 2015: 5).

The most obvious problem for historical researchers of any kind is the relative lack of data when compared with contemporary studies – the bad data problem. In modern studies, sociolinguists can control their data for many factors through careful selection of informants. As historical sociolinguists, we have to ‘make do’ with the evidence that has been preserved, which can be as much due to fate as any other factor (Ayres-Bennett 2001: 164).

We also are limited to textual evidence rather than having the option of studying written and spoken forms in contemporary situations. This means that historical sociolinguists have to be ‘creative in terms of the material they study’ (Auer et al. 2015: 5), using the textual evidence that they have at their disposal in order to approximate the spoken linguistic forms. The theories they develop and use also have to accommodate for the lack of the spoken dimension. As such, texts can be modelled as representing language variation on a scale between ‘language of immediacy’, which is conceptually oral and informal, and ‘language of distance’, which is conceptually written and formal (Elspaß 2015: 38). Despite the limitations of textual evidence and the impossibility of directly investigating spoken languages in the past, the potential for historical sociolinguistic research is vast. Indeed, such study is ‘an essential component in the search for a better understanding of the relationship between variation and change’ (Ayres-Bennett 2001: 173). Thus by applying modern sociolinguistic theory to past situations, accounting for societal differences in individual case studies, historical sociolinguists can better our general understanding of language across time.

Through scholars’ ‘creative’ ways of looking at language history, many advances have been made in this field in recent years. Most notable recent landmarks include the publishing of the Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics (Hernández-Campoy & Conde-Silvestre 2012), the launch of two book series (Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics in 2013 and Historical Sociolinguistics: Studies on Language and Society in the Past in 2014), and of course the exciting new Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics in 2015 (see Auer et al. 2015: 3-4). If the field were not advancing, we would not see such a wealth of publications and increasing interest and numbers of projects in this area.

To conclude, let us return to the question: ‘How and why do you do historical sociolinguistics?’. Whilst we are limited to working with what has been preserved for us, using creative models of language and examining each case individually for its extensive external factors, we are able to produce some well-informed claims about language variation and change in the past, with applications for our understanding of language variation in general. More personally, I research historical sociolinguistics because I feel the standard language histories do not give a complete picture of the linguistic landscape of the past, and I want to help fill in these gaps.

But what about you? Please do comment on this post with your reasons for researching sociolinguistics – both historical and contemporary. How and why do you do sociolinguistics?

Auer, Anita, Catharina Peersman, Simon Pickl, Gijsbert Rutten & Rik Vosters 2015, ‘Historical sociolinguistics: the field and its future’, in Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 2015): pp1-12.
Auer, Anita, Daniel Schreier & Richard J. Watts (eds.) 2015, ‘Letter Writing and Language Change’, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge).
Ayres-Bennett, Wendy 2001, ‘Socio-historical linguistics and the history of French’, in Journal of French Language Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (September 2001): pp159-177.
Elspaß, Stephan 2015, ‘Private letters as a source for an alternative history of Middle New High German’, in Auer et al. (eds.) 2015: pp35-52.
Hernández-Campos, Juan Manuel & Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre 2012, ‘The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics’ (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics), Wiley-Blackwell (Oxford).

Josh is a PhD candiate in French in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield. He focuses on the historical sociolinguistic landscape of sixteenth-century France. Josh is also a lead organiser for HaCKS and co-convenes a Medieval French Reading Group.


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