LINGUIST List 29.4119

Tue Oct 23 2018

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Säily, Nurmi, Palander-Collin, Auer (2017)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 23-Oct-2018
From: Andrew Lloyd <>
Subject: Exploring Future Paths for Historical Sociolinguistics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Tanja Säily
EDITOR: Arja Nurmi
EDITOR: Minna Palander-Collin
EDITOR: Anita Auer
TITLE: Exploring Future Paths for Historical Sociolinguistics
SERIES TITLE: Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics 7
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Andrew Lloyd, University of Oxford


Since the publication of Suzanne Romaine’s 1982 work on the subject, historical sociolinguistics has progressed from a position it once held between its redoubtable great aunt historical linguistics and its slightly elder sister sociolinguistics to a fully-fledged discipline that is beginning to outgrow its hand-me-down methodologies and databases. Bringing together eleven articles from researchers working with data from numerous countries, periods, and media, this latest volume in the “Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics” series addresses some of the most pressing methodological concerns for those in the field and acts as a beacon for illuminating future pathways of research. Encompassing data ranging from private Dutch and English correspondence to Hansard and Twitter, this volume not only demonstrates how established sociolinguistic models can apply to big, rich, and sometimes unlikely datasets, but also how new models and approaches are being forged in the crucible of the discipline which could eventually be applied to sociolinguistics more broadly.

Part I. Methodological Innovations

The first section (“Methodological Innovations”) aims to provide responses to several questions posed by the editors in their introduction, such as which methods of statistical and visual analysis are relevant to historical sociolinguistics and how we approach the combination of linguistic data and metadata. Taking as their guiding principles “layered simultaneity” (Nevalainen 2015) and “informational maximalism” (Janda and Joseph 2003) they have grouped together those studies which best exemplify multidisciplinarity and a methodologically combinatorial approach to their investigations. Chapters 1 to 4 seek to establish new methodologies for the burgeoning discipline that is historical sociolinguistics. The editors acknowledge the difficulties inherent in, and the reliance on, modern variationist methods from contemporary sociolinguistics as applied to historical sociolinguistics, as well as the paucity of contextual information surrounding the “bad” data ultimately used. To mitigate this, various quantitative methods such as dispersion-awareness tests and interactive visualisation tools are increasingly being employed and this is evident from the articles included here. Building on Biber’s (1988) multidimensional genre variation model, Säily et al. (1991) explore the efficacy of part-of-speech (POS) annotation for studying genre evolution and sociolinguistic variation within the “Parsed Corpus of Early English Correspondence” (c. 1410-1681). They combine annotations with textual data and social metadata to establish the extent to which POS annotation assists with mapping genre evolution, in addition to any sociolinguistic change or variation occurring above the level of singular variables. In their Linguistic DNA project comprising a bottom-up analysis of conceptual change, Fitzmaurice et al. (Chapter 2) look primarily at the history of ideas and whether printed works contained within the Early English Books Online (1473-1700) corpus include particular concepts under discussion by historians of ideas at the time. They present the reader with three case studies, each led by a particular research theme (social and historical contexts of conceptual change; lexical semantics within conceptual structures; lexicalisation pressure) and conclude with a positive prognosis for the use of their DNA project in studying language in context though its combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis allowing for further insights into conceptual development in Early Modern Britain.

In Chapter 3, Baker et al. use the visualisation methods of Meaning Fluctuation Analysis and Sparklines to analyse the varying contexts in which “Ireland” as a word appears in the “Hansard Corpus” of parliamentary debates between 1830 and 2004 (1.6 billion words of c. 40,000 individual speakers). They do this with the aim of determining how the nature of broader social and political debate has changed over time, as well as the ways in which the discussion of something in particular can experience collocational change. Chapter 4 is an investigation by Nevala and Sairio into instances of discord in correspondence between members of the English gentry between 1700 and 1800 as found in the Corpus of Early English Correspondence Extension and the Bluestocking Corpus. They are interested in the ways those of “polite” eighteenth century English society negotiated circumstances that challenged societal norms, as well as how individual correspondents could construct social identities through letter-writing. They use discourse analysis, emotion studies, and corpora to analyse the change in social import of specific labels according to the broader themes of discord, disgrace, and disorder, and contribute overall to the Third Wave of Variationist Studies.

Part II. New Data for Historical Sociolinguistic Research

The second section of the volume (“New Data for Historical Sociolinguistic Research”) looks at expanding the necessarily limited and flawed data sets available to historical sociolinguists. It does this by asking whether we can draw upon unexplored genres for new data, how existing data can be studied in new ways, and how it is possible to use big and rich data while also mitigating any challenges they might pose by virtue of their uncharted nature. Chapter 5 (Nordlund and Pallaskallio) addresses two morphological changes in Finnish occurring during the nineteenth century when codification of the language was still ongoing, viz. morphological stem variation and case suffix allomorphy. They do this in order to discover what standardisation can tell us about language planning, conspicuous or otherwise, and how it conflicts with a contemporaneous linguistic change. They draw upon newspapers, grammars, and style guides containing metalinguistic commentary to determine whether there was a disparity between changing editorial practice and rules laid out in prescriptive grammars. They also make use of hand-written letters of rural origin that shed light on how Finnish newspapers were edited during this period.

Krogull et al. (Chapter 6) use the “Going Dutch” corpus of ego documents to explore the following three themes in relation to Dutch neuter pronoun relativization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: language planning c. 1800 in the Netherlands, how historical prescriptivism has influenced usage, and how genre can explain variation and change. Their compiled data set of public and private writing allows the researchers to study variations in register and to explore language change against the background of rising linguistic nationalism and ideology. In Chapter 7, Kaislaniemi et al. track the development of epistolary spelling between 1400 and 1800 in the “Corpus of Early English Correspondence”, which is composed of c. 12,000 personal letters by some 1,200 writers. They are most interested in private spelling practices and their concomitant socially-determined variation in this period prior to standardised orthography being encouraged through policy and education. The lexemes chosen for study are “Always”, “-ful”, “Friend”, “Believe”, and “Receive”, while their social variables are social rank, gender, and domicile, and their results are compared to holograph letters from various smaller manuscript corpora.

Part III. Theory: Bridging Gaps, New Challenges

In the third and final section (“Theory: Bridging Gaps, New Challenges”), the editors wish to stress the importance of historical sociolinguistics as a bridge between interdisciplinary gaps and those between micro and macro phenomena, as well as the gains to be made from its use of paradigms and approaches from other disciplines such as social and data sciences, or economic history. In addition, this section asks how insights gleaned from different fields might contribute to or challenge theoretical assumptions made by historical sociolinguistics and it seeks to establish what new data sources can tell us about language variation and change, as well as the contributions historical sociolinguistics can make to modern sociolinguistics. In this way, Hilpert (Chapter 8) proposes that through historical sociolinguistics we can learn more about the form-function explanation of language knowledge termed “Constructional Grammar” and that this in turn will inform our study of sociolinguistic change. By viewing language as a cognitive and social system, the gap between form and function is bridged and researchers no longer need to deal with linguistic forms separately from their relative social meaning. Hilpert begins by describing mutual challenges of the two approaches before addressing their shared benefits and illustrating the advantages and drawbacks of the combined approach through an expository schema termed the “sarcastic much?” construction.

In Chapter 9, Jankowski and Tagliamonte report on their trend study of Ottawa Valley English. They examined two vernacular universals, namely the gradually dissipating verbal -s with third-person plural noun phrases and the still prominent but age-graded preterite “come”, with samples collected between thirty and thirty-five years apart. These samples came from the data collected between 1975 and 1981 on the Linguistic Survey of the Ottawa Valley led by Ian Pringle and Enoch Padolsky, as well as the researchers’ own Modern Ottawa Valley sample (2012-2013). Their research has clear implications for dialect concentration and dissipation, in particular how dialects fare when exposed to significant social change. In Chapter 10, Anderwald examines four “vernacular universals”: multiple negation, existential “there is/there was” with plural subjects, adverbs without -ly, and “you was”. She uses a new data set of 258 pedagogical grammar books from the UK and USA published between 1800 and 1900 to study metalinguistic discourse surrounding these four variables, namely the development of their stigmatisation. By drawing on various negative epithets used to describe these non-standard features, she demonstrates the different ways in which they were stigmatised and how prescriptivism differed from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Finally, Laitinen et al. (Chapter 11) bring a new, big, and rich data set to the social network model by adopting a macro-approach to the examination of Twitter posts written in non-native English from c. 200,000 informants in the five Nordic countries; these were collected from the Nordic Tweet Stream, a real-time monitor corpus. The researchers’ dependent variable was language choice of Tweet and they posited that those Tweeting in English should have more weak ties than those not, with the spread of innovations occurring most easily in “truly” weak-tie networks, despite those with stronger ties also being able to spread linguistic innovations if they contain c. 100-130 people.


Upon reading this collection of articles, one cannot help but be optimistic about the future of historical sociolinguistics. As a field of study, it is forward-looking without being complacent. It acknowledges the debt it owes to the broader discipline of sociolinguistics and paradigms such as Bell’s (2013) but is still conscious that new methods and approaches are needed if it is to evolve any further. In this vein, the editors have placed great emphasis on multidisciplinarity and collaboration between distinct yet related disciplines. They make the reader aware of the past and future trajectories of historical sociolinguistics, particularly with regard to the digital humanities, and of the widespread movement from a qualitative philological approach to a more quantitative one.

Organisationally, this volume is clearly structured into three sections (methodology, data, and challenges) with each featuring between 3 and 4 articles of broadly equal length. Every article has its own list of references, thereby enabling quicker checks to be made by only including those works relevant to that article, and a comprehensive index is included at the end of the collection. Rather helpfully for the reader, the subsections of each article are numbered, expository footnotes are occasionally included but kept to a minimum, and any diagrammatic figures are unobtrusive and printed in colour. All articles are written in a lucid prose that avoids esotericism, thereby making them accessible not only to students and researchers in linguistics, but equally to those working in the related fields of sociology, history, and politics of language.

The first advantage of this volume is its breadth and depth of treatment. In a similar way to its guiding principle of informational maximalism, this volume has drawn together what might appear at first glance several fascinating but unrelated studies under three broad headings for the reason that they can each shed light on the path historical sociolinguistics is currently following. With data ranging from the fifteenth century to the present day across countries as diverse as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, and Britain, these studies highlight the importance of drawing on the many and varied tools, such as palaeography and discourse analysis, that are available to us as historical sociolinguistics in order to reconstruct the past.

The second advantage of this collection is the hope it gives researchers wishing to tap new data sources through the innovative use of data by many of the studies contained within. It is accepted that historical linguists must ‘make the best of bad data’ (Labov 1994: 11), but this does not preclude them from mining big, freely accessible data (Laitinen et al., this volume) or from using unique combinations thereof (Jankowski and Tagliamonte, this volume). Lastly, many of the studies in this volume have found solutions to common methodological problems encountered in historical linguistics, such as the inherent inconsistency of edition-based corpora (Kytö 2011; Kytö and Pahta 2012). This has been addressed by using smaller, digital editions of meticulously transcribed texts such as those found in the Bluestocking Corpus (Nevala and Sairio, this volume). The only criticism I would make of the work is that it contains no study of languages before the late Middle Ages and it would have been useful to discover the future paths, especially in relation to data, of historical sociolinguistics in the classical languages.

For these reasons, I would have no hesitation in recommending this work to all those interested in the rapidly growing discipline of historical sociolinguistics.


Bell, A. 2013. The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics. Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Biber, D. 1988. Variation Across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Janda, R. and B. Joseph. 2003. ‘On Language, Change, and Language Change – or, Of History, Linguistics, and Historical Linguistics’. In B. Joseph and R. Janda (eds.) The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. Malden & Oxford: Blackwell. 3-180.

Kytö, M. 2011. ‘Corpora and Historical Linguistics’. Revista Brasileira de Linguística Aplicada 11 (2): 417-457.

Kytö, M. and P. Pahta. 2012. ‘Evidence from Historical Corpora up to the Twentieth Century’. The Oxford Handbook of the History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 123-133.

Labov, W.1994. Principles of Linguistic Change: Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nevalainen, T. 2015. ‘What are Historical Sociolinguistics?’ Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 1 (2): 243-269.

Nevalainen, T. and E. Traugott. 2012. The Oxford Handbook of the History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Romaine, S. 1982. Socio-Historical Linguistics: Its Status and Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Having first completed a Masters in medieval French at the University of Oxford, Andrew Lloyd subsequently undertook a Masters in theoretical and applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne where he specialised in historical French linguistics. From 2018 he intends to begin his DPhil in linguistics at the University of Oxford where his thesis will focus on the sociolinguistic implications of negative polarity items in medieval French between 1100 and 1500.

Page Updated: 23-Oct-2018