LINGUIST List 27.2519

Tue Jun 07 2016

Review: Historical Ling; Socioling: Schreier, Watts, Auer (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 31-Mar-2016
From: Jenelle Thomas <>
Subject: Letter Writing and Language Change
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Anita Auer
EDITOR: Daniel Schreier
EDITOR: Richard J. Watts
TITLE: Letter Writing and Language Change
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Jenelle Thomas, University of California, Berkeley

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Letter Writing and Language Change” is part of the series “Studies in English Language,” and, although focused on English data, it considers broader issues in historical sociolinguistic research and the use of letters in particular.

The premise of the volume, a notion explored in the introduction by Watts (see below), is that the “standard” is rather an ideological construction than a linguistic reality. As such, it is the volume’s goal to explore alternative histories of the English language, and methods of accessing and understanding them. Although all the chapters include this idea of alternative histories in their reliance on and argument for the use of letter data for a more robust, complex, and realistic view of language history, several chapters explicitly address the necessity of a language history ‘from below’(Elspaß, Allen).

The contributions work to provide a varied and multi-faceted perspective on the use of letters in historical sociolinguistic research. Methodological issues are at the heart of several chapters (Hernández-Campoy and Conde-Silvestre, Fairman, Bergs, Schreier), and the frameworks used vary from the traditional First Wave quantitative methodology to a Third Wave approach focusing on stylistics and identity; some chapters draw on the terminology and frameworks of creolistics (Allen) or globalization and mobility (Laitinen). The works collected go far beyond standard varieties of English, considering data from a wide range of social groups as well as regional or post-colonial Englishes, including New Zealand (Hundt), Canada (Dollinger), Irish immigrants (Pietsch), African American English (Siebers), and Tristan da Cunha (Schreier).

Chapter 1
Richard J. Watts’s introduction, “Setting the scene: letters, standards and historical sociolinguistics,” contextualizes the following chapters by touching upon various issues facing linguistics in general and studies of English in particular, including homogeneity and heterogeneity, the ideology of the standard, methodological difficulties in the studies of texts, and the nature of the data available to historical linguists.

Chapter 2
In “Assessing variability and change in early English letters” Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy and Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre use the Paston letter corpus of fifteenth-century English to examine the utility of First and Third Wave sociolinguistic approaches to explaining language change. Focusing on the increased use of the orthographic < th >, they separate out generational and individual change in usage, ultimately arguing that First Wave quantitative methods, while explaining the overall trend, need to be supplemented by understandings of style and performativity contributed by Third Wave theories.

Chapter 3
Stephan Elspaß’s chapter, “Private letters as a source for an alternative history of Middle New High German,” is the only chapter not focused on English. His chapter is instead methodological, arguing for the importance of ego-documents for the study of language ‘from below.’ He focuses on several variants in 19th-century German letters, which can be described as representing older norms that had been previously acceptable in the written language but stigmatized in the 19th century, as well as variants widespread in colloquial usage but considered non-standard in written communication.

Chapter 4
Tony Fairman’s “Language in print and handwriting” argues for an incorporation of handwritten texts as well as print sources into the data pool for linguistic analysis. Focus on print texts privileges the language of those segments of the population (the higher classes) who could produce them. It additionally gives us a falsely narrow understanding of “literacy,” leading to the labelling of the lower classes as “semi-literate” or “illiterate”. Instead, Fairman understands “literacy” as incorporating multiple social and psychological dimensions, including schooling, and differs according to mode (handwritten or print). Thus, despite methodological issues in the use and transcription of handwritten texts, Fairman argues that adherence to print-only sources and the standard ideology limits our understanding of historical language use in several dimensions.

Chapter 5
In “Heterogeneity vs. homogeneity,” Marianne Hundt examines an edited collection of letters from the early days of the colonization of New Zealand, focusing on grammatical features, in particular relative clauses. Despite having been written too early to show the effects of dialect mixing, the letters show a surprising amount of homogeneity and standard feature usage. Comparison with a similar corpus shows that this homogeneity is unlikely to be the result of editorial intervention.

Chapter 6
Stefan Dollinger’s chapter, “Emerging standards in the colonies: variation and the Canadian letter writer,” also focuses on regional English. He examines first-person ‘shall’ and ‘will’ in 18th and 19th century Canadian (Ontario) English, compares the data from his letter corpus to grammar books in circulation at the time and print corpus data. He finds that the letter corpus has a broader spectrum of use and makes the case for further use of letter data to understand Canadian linguistic heterogeneity.

Chapter 7
“Linguistic fingerprints of authors and scribes,” Alexander Bergs’ contribution, looks at scribal practices to get at the question of how important the scribe's influence is on the linguistic product. Using the Paston letter corpus, he compares the use of personal pronouns and relativization for those ‘authors’ who had multiple scribes, and those authors who both wrote their own letters and acted as scribes for others.

Chapter 8
Anita Auer examines style and repertoire as constrained by other social factors, most notably educational opportunities and literacy levels, in a chapter entitled “Stylistic variation.” She takes as a case study six different letters from three female authors representing the high, middle, and low classes. The letters vary as to topic and addressee, as well as style, although the range is much broader in the highest class writer.

Chapter 9
Susan Fitzmaurice further complicates the idea of standard language in her chapter, “English aristocratic letters.” She focuses on three letters from aristocratic men involved in the 18th century Kit-Cat club. While they command the standard language and epistolary conventions, Fitzmaurice finds that they also use grammatical features which would be negatively viewed in the later codified standard. The letters, while situating their authors squarely within the aristocratic and literate community of practice, are also used to perform a persona and to maintain a particular relationship with the addressee.

Chapter 10
In “Early nineteenth-century pauper letters,” Mikko Laitinen applies the framework of sociolinguistics of globalization and mobility to examine letters from an underrepresented segment of the population. Laitinen shows the variety of linguistic and stylistic choices used by the authors at both the personal (local) and translocal level to express, for example, a request for financial assistance. The chapter argues for the use of material created by a lower-class authorship, but also for a broadening of existing methodology.

Chapter 11
Barbara Allen’s chapter, “A non-standard standard? Exploring the evidence from nineteenth-century vernacular letters and diaries,” calls into question the often assumed invariability of the standard, showing that while some documents show 'non-standard' features, these in fact are not random but rather systematic and often co-occurring. The author proposes to use a scale (adopted from creole studies) of acrolect-basilect to understand this pattern, rather than the overly broad ‘non-standard.’

Chapter 12
“Archaism and dialect in Irish emigrant letters,” by Lukas Pietsch, examines the use of ‘periphrastic do’, a feature that was archaic at the time of writing, although part of an older Standard English, in the letters of Irish emigrants. Shown not to be a feature of Irish dialect, despite surface similarity, this feature must have been passed along as part of the writing genre or register. Pietsch encourages a reconsideration of the status of private letters as close to speech, as they also preserve formality, archaism, and formulae which may be archaic or lost in any other genre or medium.

Chapter 13
This chapter by Lucia Siebers, “Assessing heterogeneity,” looks at a broad corpus of African American English letters from underrepresented regions, focusing on the use of present and past tense ‘be’ and was/were variation. Despite the heterogeneity of the locations and time periods, feature usage is surprisingly fairly homogeneous. The author argues that the study of letters might help us understand the origins of AAE and its hetero- or homogeneity.

Chapter 14
Daniel Schreier works with contemporary letters in his chapter, “Hypercorrection and the persistence of local dialect features in writing,” in which he raises another methodological question for historical sociolinguistic data. Schreier compares oral and written data from an isolated variety of postcolonial English (Tristan da Cunha). Focusing on ‘be-leveling’, he shows that while expected dialect forms are attested, hypercorrection also occurs. This hypercorrection would be easily misinterpreted if letters were the only linguistic resource available,

Chapter 15
In their conclusion, “Epilogue: Where next?” editors Anita Auer, Daniel Schreier and Richard J. Watts expand on the themes brought forth in the preceding chapters, including the idea of ‘orderly differentiation’ (Weinreich et al 1968). They end with a call to understand the significance of performance, which includes stylization and audience design, especially in the letter genre.


This collection is striking in its breadth, including a variety of methodological approaches, historical periods, geographical regions, and socioeconomic levels. As such it is successful in its goal of challenging the conception of ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard,’ both of which terms have been shown to be both overly broad and imprecise. Through its historical, geographical, and social coverage, the volume succeeds in showcasing the variety of data available and its usefulness for providing a broader picture of historical English in particular, and language use in general. While this variety of the contributions allows for a fuller exploration of historical English(es), it can at times contribute to a lack of flow in the volume, as the chapters are not organized chronologically nor in discrete thematic groups.

Scholars of English and historical sociolinguists from other language traditions will find the volume a valuable discussion of current issues in methodology, continuing recent work in the same vein (such as Van der Wal and Rutten’s volume on ego-documents (2013)). It highlights the interdisciplinarity of the field, drawing from varying methods in sociolinguistics as well as history and sociology. As such, it is in discussion with current theories in quantitative and qualitative sociolinguistic methodology (see, for example, Labov (1994) and Eckert (2008)). Most of the contributions reprise a now familiar theme—the value of letters for historical linguistics and language histories—but many have moved beyond this question to probe solutions to the particular problems associated with data from these sources, such as scribal influences or undetected hypercorrection. In this way, the volume is successful in advancing the conversation.

Those looking for a traditional history of standard English will not find it here. However, the volume opens up exciting avenues of research for further exploration of underrepresented varieties and investigates familiar features (e.g. relative clauses) in new speaker populations, and will thus be of interest to historians of the language. Elspaß’s chapter, which deals with German, feels out of place in this context, but his methodological contribution justifies the chapter’s inclusion.

In conclusion, Auer, Schreier, and Watts have offered a thought-provoking volume which draws together some of the foremost English historical sociolinguists to discuss the state of the art. They are particularly successful in challenging the standard ideology in both the English language and our approach to it. The variety of contributions includes as many speaker populations as it does methodological approaches; historians of English as well as other languages will find it useful in thinking about future avenues and methods for historical sociolinguistic research.


Eckert, Penelope. 2008. Variation and the indexical field. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12(4). 453-76.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change. Part I: Internal Factors. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Wal, Marijke. J. van der, and Gijsbert Johan Rutten (eds.). 2013. Touching the Past Studies in the Historical Sociolinguistics of Ego-Documents. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov and Marvin Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In Lehmann, Winfred P. and Yakov Malkiel (eds.), Directions for Historical Linguistics, 95-195. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Jenelle Thomas is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation project is an analysis of bilingual (French/Spanish) letters from the 18th and 19th centuries. Her research interests include historical sociolinguistics, language contact, and phonetics and phonology.

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