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). Continue reading