LINGUIST List 26.5139

Tue Nov 17 2015

Calls: Historical Linguistics, Sociolinguistics/Italy

Editor for this issue: Anna White <>

Date: 15-Nov-2015
From: Francesco Rovai <>
Subject: SLE Workshop: Bad Data: Methodological Aspects in Historical Sociolinguistics
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Full Title: SLE Workshop: Bad Data: Methodological Aspects in Historical Sociolinguistics
Short Title: SLE-BD

Date: 31-Aug-2016 - 03-Sep-2016
Location: Naples, Italy
Contact Person: Giovanna Marotta
Meeting Email: < click here to access email >

Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics

Call Deadline: 22-Nov-2015

Meeting Description:

When dealing with ancient languages, some of the most relevant problems one has to face result from the fact that every investigation is necessarily constrained by a finite, closed corpus of written attestations. But a mere transposition of methods and procedures from Corpus Linguistics to the study of ancient languages would be clearly inadequate. A representative corpus can be duly designed for the investigation of specific aspects of living languages, but the corpus of an ancient language «survive[s] by chance, not by design» (Labov, 1994: 11), and it is often a collection of fragmentary and skewed data – either in part (e.g. Latin, Ancient Greek) or in their entirety (e.g. Sabellic languages). Thus, the reliability of such data cannot be separated from a qualitative approach, which is often philological in nature.

This is in line with the well known definition of Historical Linguistics «as the art of making the best use of bad data» (Labov, 1994: 11). Labov’s statement, which is an omen and a caveat at the same time, raises a number of issues that are even more significant in Historical Sociolinguistics, i.e. the branch of language studies where «historical linguistics and sociolinguistics form a natural class rather than an uneasy forced alliance» (Joseph, 2012: 15), and where they necessarily share practices and research questions. In particular, tracing the development of the field of Historical Sociolinguistics, Auer et al. (2015) highlight that any attempt to know something about the social distribution of linguistic features in the past is burdened by the so-called ‘bad data’ problem.

The workshop aims at discussing the implications of the ‘bad data’ problem and other related issues for the current linguistic research about ancient languages, with particular reference to the Graeco-Roman world.


Auer, A., Peersman, C., Pickl, S., Rutten, G. and Vosters, R. (2015), Historical sociolinguistics: the field and its future, in «Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics», 1, 1, pp. 1-12.
Bergs, A. (2012), The Uniformitarian Principle and the Risk of Anachronisms in Language and Social History, in Hernández-Campoy, J.M. and Conde-Silvestre, J.C. (2012, eds.), The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 80-98.
Joseph, B. (2012), Historical Linguistics and Sociolinguistics: Strange bedfellows or natural friends?, in Langer, N., Davies, S. and Vandenbussche, W. (2012, eds.), Language and history, linguistics and historiography, Peter Lang, Oxford-Bern-Berlin-Bruxelles-Frankfurt am Main-New York-Wien, pp. 67-88.
Labov, W. (1994), Principles of linguistic change: Internal factors, Blackwell, Oxford.

Call for Papers:

Methodological papers and case studies are welcome on the following topics.

a. The ‘bad data’ problem has been restated by Janda and Joseph (2003: 14) in terms of ‘imperfect data’ problem, since the data available for investigation in ancient languages are not as complete as data collected for a contemporary corpus study can be. Hence, a number of methodological objections may be raised about possible shortcomings, all traceable to one fundamental question: given the weakness of negative evidence, how imminent is the risk of over-interpretation of data? And how can such a danger be reduced to a minimum?

b. A discussion on the ‘bad data’ problem necessarily calls into question a re-examination of the ‘Uniformitarian Principle’ (Labov, 1972: 101), that is traditionally applied as a useful heuristic tool in order to bridge the gap between fragmentary data and the possibility to make generalisations over them. But the ‘Uniformitarian Principle’ is always a possible source of anachronism (Bergs, 2012). Like any other social category, the conceptualization of ‘social class’ changes through time, as well as its linguistic correlates. Thus, how safely can a modern definition of this category be applied to ancient data? For example, can the class of the liberti ‘freedmen’ of the Early Roman Empire be described in terms of a social class? And was the correlation between social class and literacy in the past the same as today?

c. Finally, when dealing with written data, the context of documents must be taken into detailed account, and a multi-disciplinary approach including other fields of human studies (philology, archaeology, history, etc.) is necessarily required (cf. the contributions edited in Mullen and James, 2012). But how can the context, as a cluster of extra-linguistic features, be incorporated into linguistic analysis? And can this make ‘bad data’ any better?


Bergs, A. (2012), The Uniformitarian Principle and the Risk of Anachronisms in Language and Social History, in Hernández-Campoy, J.M. and Conde-Silvestre, J.C. (2012, eds.), The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 80-98.
Janda, R.D. and Joseph, B.D. (2003), On language, change, and language change – or, of history, linguistics, and historical linguistics, in Joseph, B.D. and Janda, R.D. (2003, eds.), Handbook of historical linguistics, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 2-180.
Labov, W. (1972), Some principles of linguistic methodology, in «Language in Society», 1, pp 97-120.
Mullen, A. and James, P. (2012), Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman Worlds, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge-New York.

Abstracts (300 words excluding references; deadline November 22, 2015) should be sent to: '' and ''. Abstracts will be evaluated by the convenors, and selected abstracts will accompany the workshop proposal.

Convenors: Giovanna Marotta (Università di Pisa), Francesco Rovai (Università di Pisa).

Page Updated: 17-Nov-2015