LINGUIST List 15.36

Tue Jan 13 2004

Review: Hist/Socioling: Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg

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  1. Patrick Studer, Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in ... England

Message 1: Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in ... England

Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003 10:35:10 -0000
From: Patrick Studer <>
Subject: Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in ... England


Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (2003) Historical
Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England, Pearson
Longman, Longman Linguistics Library.

Announced at

Patrick Studer, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick,

The focus of this review is an elegantly produced book which, in its
attempt to apply modern analytical research methods to past stages of
language, will be of interest to historical linguists, sociolinguists
and corpus linguists. The study which seeks to quantitatively describe
and explain correlations between language users and phenomena of
change in Early Modern English raises methodological issues that need
to be addressed in future research. Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg's
analysis is based on CEEC, a machine-readable Corpus of Early English
Correspondence. The study has been published under the general
editorship of Geoffrey Horrocks and David Denison in the Longman
Linguistics Library series. It falls into ten chapters which divide
into further sub-sections, followed by notes at the end of each
chapter. Numerical information and details of CEEC, along with author
and subject indices, are attached at the end of the book for

Chapter 1 sets out the agenda of historical sociolinguistics as a
discipline by stressing the importance of language use and users in
the study of language history, linguistic innovation and change. While
this research agenda may not fundamentally differ from modern
Sociolinguistics, the lack of language intuition and the patchy
knowledge of contemporary usage of language requires a more
interdisciplinary approach involving historical linguistics,
sociolinguistics and social history. The research topics that result
from the interdisciplinary approach include the observation of
parallel changes, gender differentiation, social status in variation,
register and others.

Chapter 2 continues by outlining the sociolinguistic paradigms in the
study of speaker role in past stages of language. The authors
essentially distinguish between quantitative research methods (social
dialectology, sociology of language) and qualitative approaches
(interactional, constructivist sociolinguistics). While the authors
acknowledge the complementary nature of both strands, they
particularly recognise the need for quantitative baseline data
(p. 20).

Chapter 3 introduces the Corpus of Early English Correspondence
(CEEC), which forms the baseline data for the study. The CEEC consists
of over 6000 personal letters collected from more than 700 informants,
spanning the period between 1410 and 1681 (pp. 43-49). The authors
find the medium of letters particularly suited for sociolinguistic
analysis, arguing that letters may be placed at the oral end of the
written-oral continuum and could therefore be taken as indicators of
changes from below (pp. 28-29). While basically acknowledging the
''bad data'' problem in historical sociolinguistic analysis (p. 26),
the authors draw attention to some advantages historical data may have
over contemporary data, such as the possibility for the researcher to
carry out real-time analyses (as against to apparent-time) and the
temporal distance between the researcher and their data, which may
lead to greater objectivity in making linguistic choices (pp. 26-28).

Chapter 4 reports the results of a time/frequency analysis of fourteen
well-documented dimensions of language change. The aim of the chapter
is to highlight temporal aspects of diffusion and spread of new
linguistic features and to capture large-scale developments, rather
than minute details, of change (p. 53). The results are put in
relation to the theoretical model of the S-curve, which claims that
linguistic innovation tends to follow the pattern
''slow-fast-slow''. The side effect of this procedure is that it tests
the validity of the theoretical model on the basis of empirical
data. The results show that the S-shape is not replicated in some
changes, notably in the change from YE to YOU, which is too rapid for
the S-shape, and the shift from OF-phrases into noun phrases, which
progresses too slowly to fit into model. The fourteen dimensions of
change that are analysed in this and the following chapters are the

- 'YE' vs. 'YOU'
- 'MY', 'THY' vs. 'MINE', 'THINE'
- 'S' vs 'TH' SUFFIX

Chapter 5 discusses how the fourteen changes diffuse across age levels
(apparent time model). The apparent time concept starts from the
assumption that some changes in linguistic behaviour are subject to
the age of the speakers, while other changes spread from one
generation to the next (e.g. sound changes, morphology) or occur
simultaneously in a community (lexical, syntactic changes). The
apparent-time model, however, has its natural limitations for the
present study: In many cases, information about the age of the speaker
cannot be traced, which distorts the overall picture of the
analysis. The authors again point to the problem of insufficient
background information (p. 88) but at the same time find that in some
changes (e.g. YE -> YOU) the age of the speakers and the linguistic
choices go hand in hand. They conclude that, although there can be no
unfailing correspondence, the apparent time model is a valid
analytical concept. In cases where the model fails, the authors
suggest further micro-level studies (p. 99).

In chapter 6, the authors shift their perspective to gender
differentiation in the CEEC. They look at differences in the spread of
the fourteen linguistic variables in the corpus and evaluate the
correlation between the results and the diffusion of the changes.
Similar restrictions regarding corpus data as in the previous chapters
apply here as well, with only 20% of all letters in CEEC being written
by women. Moreover, the majority of the female informants come from
upper ranks so that no complete picture can be obtained with regard to
the distribution and spread of language changes across the social
strata. In spite of the limited access to data from women, a
comparison between men and women seems to suggest that women lead the
changes, with the exception of cases in which social awareness plays a
role in the use of a linguistic variable (e.g. multiple negation).

Chapter 7 deals with social stratification in the corpus, testing the
correlations between social order and six of the fourteen linguistic
changes analysed in the study. While the authors believe that
correlations exist for most changes, they express their reservations
as to whether they can be recovered on the basis of their data
(p. 139). Women, for example, had to be excluded from the analysis
because of insufficient data (p. 137). Despite these problems, the
analysis seems to show that stratification can occur at any stage of
diffusion. Moreover, a further pilot study of four changes reveals
that directionality of change can be assessed empirically (p. 148-50).

Chapter 8 addresses processes of supralocalisation, i.e. the
horizontal diffusion and spread of changes. The authors use three
levels of delicacy for their analysis and generally distinguish
between London, the Court, East Anglia and the North. Although the
analysis shows that most changes seem to have been led by the capital
city, the results simultaneously indicate that the horizontal axis is
difficult to be kept apart from the vertical one (pp. 182-83).

In chapter 9, the authors try to find hierarchies among the
sociolinguistic factors studied in previous chapters. In this context,
the authors are interested in finding correlations between register
(especially tenor, i.e. the social relations between correspondents)
with other external variables in language variation and change
(p. 188; 190). For this purpose, they carry out a multivariate
analysis including the following parameters: real time, region, gender
and register (p. 189). The results suggest that the changes under
scrutiny are either gender- or region-driven (p. 198); the weakest
variable proves to be register.

Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg end their comprehensive study with
some conclusive remarks in chapter 10. Putting the fourteen linguistic
changes into the wider picture of standard present-day English, the
authors find that most changes that are completed in CEEC later became
standard variants in present-day English (p. 205). They further remark
that, while each linguistic change analysed in the study is socially
unique and basically unpredictable (p. 209), the results seem to
indicate that the driving force behind language change is the striving
for socially successful interaction (p. 210). Also they stress that
most changes prove to be both communal and generational. In their
final note, the authors, albeit cautiously, endorse the need to
consider the impact of unexpected external influences, such as
e.g. Civil War effects, on processes of change.

As readers of this book, we have no doubts that Nevalainen and
Raumolin-Brunberg have been most meticulous in their effort to put
sociolinguistics ''to the test of time'' (p. 202). The authors have
used more primary data than any other study I know and have carried
out their analyses thoroughly, carefully and comprehensively. My
critical remarks, therefore, do not concern the analytical framework,
the research tools or the results of their analyses: Nevalainen and
Raumolin-Brunberg have done their homework in every single detail of
their study - from the preparation of data to the presentation of
results. What we can and perhaps should do, however, is to question
the premises on which the analyses rest and ponder, on this occasion,
the generalisations the authors draw from them. In other words, we
might ask ourselves: Does a 2.3 million word corpus of written text
material covering 270 years of history suffice to indicate how
language changes emerge, diffuse and spread socially? As much as we
might hope it would, we may assume that it does not. And although we
must appreciate and praise the compilers of CEEC for the labour they
have put into the corpus, we cannot help noticing the severe
limitations a historical corpus naturally entails for the
reconstruction of the linguistic past and, in particular, of language
changes below social awareness. A single-genre text corpus, although
an excellent starting-point, may just not be enough for this

The problem of representativeness becomes even more intricate if we
take into account that letter writing in the Early Modern Period was a
highly formal process which required more concentration than, for
example, the writing of present-day e-mails or text messages. Thus,
the distance between the written message and the spoken word was
naturally greater than today, just as the circle of people who
mastered the art of writing was much more exclusive. Interpreting
sociolinguistic developments in personal letters, written by the few
for the few, as potentially indicative of trends in spoken discourse
makes the present research project perhaps a little too
ambitious. Future research, possibly involving multi-genre corpora and
more data, might be needed to analyse in greater detail the behaviour
of language users in the past. While my general reservations may raise
some points for debate regarding the usefulness of CEEC as a
substitute for spoken data, they do by no means question the value of
the book as an excellent guide to the systematic study of
sociolinguistic variables in a historical environment.

By way of conclusion, we may emphasise that Nevalainen and Raumolin-
Brunberg have made a substantive contribution to the study of the
linguistic past. The present book shows that historical
sociolinguistics shares many of the aims of its sister discipline and
that quantitative surveys on historical data do yield valuable
results. At the same time, important differences between the two
approaches seem to become apparent: Unlike present-day
sociolinguistics, historical sociolinguistics is dictated to a large
extent by the availability of primary data and contextual information
about these data. Given these natural constraints, historical
sociolinguistics seems to be forced to walk on a tightrope between
traditional historical studies, philology and strictly systematised,
computer-aided research methods. This makes it a highly flexible,
dynamic and interdisciplinary area of research but at the same time
susceptible to fall prey to the demands of either side. The present
study clearly tends towards the latter end of the scale. Perhaps a
more balanced approach would make the best use of the complementary
nature of both sides.


Patrick Studer teaches in Mary Immaculate College, University of
Limerick, Ireland, currently finishing his PhD thesis about the
development of early English media language.
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