Historical Sociolinguistics

Historical sociolinguistics is a fascinating field of study. My particular interest in this field is primarily motivated by the people – How did they navigate their personal identities through linguistic means? How did they use language to negotiate power relations? These then lead to more language-focused questions – Why did one person use a particular linguistic variant instead of another? How did they feel about the language(s) they spoke? The following books have helped me begin to understand some of the answers to these questions.


Hernàndez-Campoy, Juan Manuel & Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre (eds.) 2012. The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

I think this book is a great starting point for anyone new to the field, and a useful reference for those who are not so new to the field.
Featuring 35 articles by leading scholars, the Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics outlines key concept in five parts: ‘Origins and Theoretical Assumptions’ charts the growth of the field and its basic tenets; ‘Methods for the Sociolinguistic Study of the History of Languages’ puts the theory into practice and demonstrates a number of methods that are commonly used in historical sociolinguistic research; ‘Linguistic and Socio-demographic Variables’ breaks down the theory into individual elements, in order to get a deeper understanding of variables; ‘Historical Dialectology, Language Contact, Change, and Diffusion’ draws our attention to the multilingual nature of the past; and ‘Attitudes to Language’ concludes the Handbook with discussions of the more ideological aspects.


Lodge, R. Anthony 2004. A sociolinguistic history of Parisian French. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

As a student of French studies, this book is perhaps one of the main reasons why I became interested in the historical sociolinguistics of French.
Whilst the ‘French of Paris’ was certainly not missing from existing language histories, it tended to focus on the highest strata of society and not the everyday languages spoken in the city. Lodge remedies this by taking a sociolinguistic approach to give a more holistic view of the languages spoken in the city. He traces Parisian French from the medieval period to the present day, focusing on the evolving demographics of the city and how these may have impacted on the development of the language variety.


Van der Wal, Marijke J. & Gijsbert Rutten (eds.) 2013 onwards (book series). Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Although this is a relatively new book series, I am always excited to hear when the next issue is published.

The Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics series publishes on a variety of topics that ‘contribute to our understanding of the relations between the individual, language and society in the past’. The first few issues had a particular focus on studies involving private letters and ego-documents, due to the link between writing and orality provided by such documents. This series not only covers many different languages, but it also has an interdisciplinary appeal – the topics covered are of interest to linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians.


Langer, Nils, Stephan Elspass, Joseph Salmons & Wim Vandenbussche (eds.) 2014 onwards (book series). Historical sociolinguistics: Studies on Language and Society in the Past. Bern: Peter Lang.

This is another new book series which has an exciting range of articles, demonstrating the broad appeal of sociolinguistics.

The Historical Sociolinguistics series is another key series for scholars working in the field. This series is open to contributions from historians and linguists working in social history. The diversity of topics in each volume is testament to the interdisciplinary nature and appeal of sociolinguistics: multilingualism, literature, private letters, language policy, and marginalisation are just some of the topics covered in a single volume of this book series. Each issue so far has also been dedicated to a region or time period, so some volumes may not be directly relevant for everyone, but they are still a fascinating read.


Auer, Anita, Daniel Schreier & Richard J. Watts 2014. Letter Writing and Language Change. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book goes in-depth on how letters can be used in historical sociolinguistic research – which is what really interests me.

This edited volume takes the concepts of modern-day variationist sociolinguistics and shows how it applies in historical cases. Whilst the focus is on English, there are some contributions for a more international readership. What makes this volume so interesting is that the primary sources used are generally from the lower social strata, often writing to those in higher ranks of society, so issues such as power relations and ‘standard’ language usage are key concepts. A number of theoretical concepts are introduced, but they are presented with many intriguing examples, which makes this volume a pleasure to read.