LINGUIST List 30.4527

Fri Nov 29 2019

Review: Discourse Analysis; Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Auer, Schreier, Watts (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 21-Aug-2019
From: Md Mijanur Rahman <>
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: 2019

REVIEWER: Md Mijanur Rahman, Illinois State University


The book Letter writing and language change edited by Anita Auer, Daniel Schreier, and Richard J. Watts is a collection of some historical sociolinguistic studies, trying to provide alternative and multiple histories of language, mainly English, from both below and above. Situated in the context of the typical tendencies of the historical linguists to focus on the growth and development of a language’s standard variety only, the collection breaks the norms by choosing to focus on the writing produced by people representing multiple socio-economic layers of different periods. Based on mostly letters and diaries, both published and handwritten manuscripts, which many prescriptivists might dismiss as non-standard, the chapters problematize the standard language ideologies of an ideal and unchanging variety in different periods of a language’s historical development, especially for English and to some extent for German, in different parts of the world.

In Chapter 1, “Setting the scene: letters, standards and historical sociolinguistics”, Richard J. Watts touches base on the theoretical perspectives and methodological considerations that guide the rest of the book chapters. Using the deft analogy of angling a variety of fishes (varieties of language) using multiplicities of worms, Watts identifies three basic problems in the historical study of language, which the contributors of the volume undertake. The first is a tendency for historical sociolinguists to focus on individual languages rather than human language in general, which often ends up glorifying a particular language by telling “communal stories” (p. 3). The second is the myth of the homogenous language which denies the inherent heterogenetic nature of human linguistic behavior and promotes a single variety as the only acceptable one for a specific community. The third one is the problem with data sources used to develop generalizations about the trajectory of a language variety. Written-only sources that are often printed (often after careful editing) rather than original manuscripts work as a serious limitation to the linguists’ attempts to capture the originary nature of the language. Watts also presents the practices of variation sociolinguists to use quantitative methods and those of interactional sociolinguists to use observation of actual interaction as less than ideal for historical sociolinguists because of the relative paucity of data, especially spoken data from the past. The chapter ends with a thematic summary of the different chapters that follow.

In Chapter 2, “Assessing variability and change in early English letters”, Juan Manuel Harnandez-Campoy and Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre present a historical sociolinguistic study of a corpus of 280 letters by the male members of the Paston family in the 15th century England. Using both the first order and the second order variation theories, the writers make a quantitative analysis of the variable <th> in the letter collection to show a language change over time. The researchers observe that overall the Paston family members were increasingly adopting the variable <th> in place of the prevalent variants over their life times (ultimately replacing them entirely); this can be explained as a typical change in progress from above. Using the third order theory of language use as a performance, the authors demonstrate how different members of the Paston family adopted the variable differently to construct an identity and style that parallels the family’s attempt at and success in upward mobility along the social scale of the time.

Stephen ElspaB in his Chapter 3, “Private letters as a source for an alternative history of Middle New High German”, proposes and illustrates a model of a “German language history from below” (pp. 35-37). Unlike the exclusive preoccupation of the traditional language historiographers who, for data, relied mostly on printed texts written by an elite minority of educated language users to fashion the trajectory of the “standard” German language, ElspaB focuses on the private letters (648 of them) by the lower and lower middle class people who had limited education and who used certain variants described by the prescriptivists as examples of “bad language” (p. 41). In his attempt at “the reconstruction of the grammatical norms of usage in nineteenth century lower class writing” (p. 40), the author presents the specific examples of nine usages that problematize the traditional presentation of the German language history as “more or less diaglossic”, as the private letters or what the writer called “ego documents” exhibit a pattern of language usage that cannot be categorized as either exclusively regional or social.

Tony Fairman in his Chapter 4, “Language in print and handwriting”, focuses on the dichotomy of manuscripts and printed texts, relating them to the social power dynamics of people, which creates a methodological problem for studying language historically. This is largely due to the way literacy training and schooling were set up systematically, privileging the upper and middle class through grammar schools, preparing them for creative possibilities in language while those from society’s lower ranks were imparted literacy training so that they could be mere copyists instead of creative authors. While the ultimate outcome diverged in certain ways from the original social plan, the printed texts in the late modern English period were mostly by those in the upper class, as people in lower social order were rarely able to publish their manuscripts. Fairman argues that the linguists who depend on published texts only are essentially researching “the standardized language of the higher ranks only”, a methodology that needs reconceptualization for a proper representation of the whole range of linguistic data, which is possible only if both printed texts and handwritten manuscripts prepared by all ranks of people are afforded equal attention.

In Chapter 5, “Heterogeneity vs. homogeneity”, Marianne Hundt studies some 86 letters written by some early settlers of English farmers in New Zealand and published by the New Zealand company in 1843 in London to show how those letters could represent some grammatical features that may have provided the early impetus for the emergence of a standard New Zealand variety of English. While being aware of the data set’s limitation of being edited, not being a representative corpus, and mostly celebrating the convenience of settling in New Zealand, Hundt analyzes the letters’ social, stylistic, regional, and grammatical features, which she then compares with those in more or less contemporary letters by American immigrants from Lancashire, UK. Findings show absence of non-standard features and less grammatical variability, mostly presenting a set of grammatical features, also noticeable in the American letters. This is despite the fact that the American letters diverged greatly in spelling, a factor Hundt thinks may have been edited out of the New Zealand letters.

In Chapter 6, “Emerging standards in the colonies: variation and the Canadian letter writer”, Stefan Dollinger presents findings from a real time study of the variable, shall and will in first person declarative sentences indicating future. Based on a corpus of some 154 letters from The corpus of early Ontario English, the study shows how at a time of Canadian Dainty when the upper middle class people were looking to their England heritage as a linguistic model, the people gradually shifted from the British marked practice of using shall for first person and will for all other cases to a local Canadian standard, a transformation illustrated through the eventual adoption of will as a model to indicate future. Dollinger thus provides a bottom up theoretical framework for the eventual emergence of a uniquely Canadian variety of English distinct from American English or British English.

In Chapter 7, “Linguistic fingerprints of authors and scribes”, Alexander Bergs addresses a core methodological consideration in historical sociolinguistic studies by exploring the tricky question of whose writings the historical sociolinguists actually read in their study of language variation based on past corpora and how the scribes, the people who are dictated to, actually write what is dictated by the original authors. Based on the famous corpus of Paston letters from Late Middle English period, Bergs’ study focuses on two variables: personal pronouns and relativization, making an attempt to trace the uses of the conservative and innovative forms of these two variables, especially by bringing in the gender dynamics in many Paston letters. Bergs, however, reaches no firm conclusion as imagined scenarios, speculation and educated guesses characterize the reporting of findings. Given the lack of enough relevant data on the context surrounding the letter production process, the lack of a logical firm conclusion does not seem entirely inappropriate either; such a conclusion, Bergs argues, needs a collaboration of linguists and social historians to achieve.

Chapter 8, “Stylistic variation” by Anita Auer, presents a qualitative case study of stylistic variation in letters of three women writers from the late modern English period. Auer focuses on a pair of letters by each woman representing three different layers of then contemporary social hierarchy: the elite, the middle-class and the working poor, briefly reviewing the three theories of intra-speaker variation--attention to speech, audience design and speaker design--and highlighting speaker strategies to promote multiple individual identities linguistically. Situating her study in the context of stratified educational opportunities, designs and uses, Auer chooses letter samples from each layer. Findings show that the elite woman writer, a wife of George VI, exhibits expert manipulation of linguistic resources to project different and rhetorically appropriate personalities: familiar and distant, in two different contexts. The second writer, the wife of the Poet Wordsworth, does not show as much expertise but still manages to address two different situations. The third woman, in a similar fashion, does not show a full mastery of letter writing skills but still projects different personas to two different audiences.

Chapter 9, “English aristocratic letters”, by Susan Fitzmaurice presents a contextually rich qualitative content analysis of three English aristocratic letters from the early 18th century. Detailing the discursive practices of the English aristocrats forming a community of practice around the famous London Kit-Cat club in the first part of the chapter, Fitzmaurice uses the second part to focus on letters of three individuals: the Earl of Dorset, the Earl of Hifax and the Duke of Shrewsbury, analyzing them in three different levels: 1. autograph text, showing the writers’ often idiosyncratic style of abbreviation, spelling, and punctuation; 2. epistolary frame or letter structure that includes the writers’ use of salutations, closings, and other rhetorical choices; and 3. lexicogrammatical choices representing the authors’ background and style variation. Findings provide a rich description of the sociolinguistic variation found in aristocratic letters, which shows many of the distinctive attributes of the standard language to be codified later in the century but are also replete with features and usages that prescriptivists would not be happy about.

Mikko Laitinen situates Chapter 10, “Early nineteenth-century pauper letters”, in the context of the greater focus of the historical English linguists on the standard language of the society’s more powerful but minority population and the relative lack of representation of the laboring poor in the large-scale historical corpora despite their being the overwhelming majority in 19th century England. Laitinen makes an attempt to address this gap by focusing on the 19th century pauper letters written by often mobile people from the lower socio-economic strata to receive pauper aid made possible by the old poor laws of 1601. Drawing on the literature of the sociolinguistics of globalization, Laitinen expands the framework of historical sociolinguistics in studying the pauper letters. The chapter shows the pauper letter writers alternate and often mix “the local and translocal” (p. 188) styles to convey language of immediacy to locally write for pauper aid and the language and rhetoric of distance to establish the writers’ judicial eligibility in a way that transcends the differential senses of geographical and social hierarchy of center and periphery.

Barbara Allen in her Chapter 11, “A non-standard standard? Exploring the evidence from nineteenth-century vernacular letters and diaries”, problematizes the mainstream practice of studying of what has been called the “invariant” and “model” standard variety of the upper class, by focusing on the largely “non-standard” writing styles of those at the bottom rung of socioeconomic classes in nineteenth-century Sussex. Based on some fifty-two letters and diaries, Allen resorts to the notion of a continuum and some terms of creolist scholars (acrolect, mesolect, and basilect) to explain the writing styles’ degree of difference in orthography, grammar and lexis from the standard written English of educated writers as the acrolectal writers displayed their acquaintance with the prescriptive standard norms of the time, the mesolectal writers showed some awareness of them while those at the basilectal end exhibited little to no familiarity of standard rules. Findings specially indicate, for example, how Latinate vocabulary and complex clause structures from the acrolect end keep disappearing as single-clause sentences, frequently misspelt and often phonetically spelled words replace them at the other ends, mesolect and basilect, of the continuum. In the end, the writer posits that the non-standard language of the lower class, whom she calls schooled rather than educated, did show some consistency in their variable language features, making the notion of a non-standard standard a possibility.

Lukas Pietsch in Chapter 12, “Archaism and dialect in Irish emigrant letters”, focuses on “the free use of periphrastic do in unstressed assertive contexts” (pp. 223-224) in some 1000 private letter texts written by and to Irish emigrants in Australia and America in between the late seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries. Pietsch explores the implications of how the letters writers used the periphrastic do, which is a marked feature for emphatic contexts in then contemporary standard English, rather freely without any motivation, a feature that is not available in the writers’ Irish English spoken dialect but a persistent one in the letter data. Findings show that the unmotivated do featured in the emergent standard English in the seventeenth century but later went out of use. However, the feature gained a life of its own through the largely conventional practices of correspondence by people who had limited literacy skills and may have had no access to the latest version of educated standard variety of English, and who meant these features to be considered standard. In so doing, these writers handed down a set of grammatical and lexical features in these letters that were once considered standard features but later became archaic both in their Irish English dialect and the modern educated standard English.

Lucia Siebers situates Chapter 13, “Assessing heterogeneity”, in the context of the controversies surrounding the origin of African American English or rather Englishes (AAE) in America, arguing for an “orderly heterogeneity” in early AAE through an analysis of two letter corpora: “the Benecke Family Papers and the letters from the Chickasawa and Choctaw freedmen” (p. 245), also described as “semi-literate African Americans from the 1760s to 1910s” (p. 240) based on a range of non-standard features in their writing. Focusing on two major variables: levelling to was, and third person plural -s concord, Siebers, first, provide a contextualized description of the African American literacy history in America, making explicit the historical factors like antiliteracy legislation in the South responsible for limited literacy rate among the Black people enslaved and exploited by both the whites and some native American tribes. Siebers then assesses how individual literacy levels, which were often the result of fortunate circumstances, lead to heterogeneous writing registers in both private letters and official correspondences, as reflected in their word choices, largely phonetic spelling, lack of punctuation, and indiscriminate capitalization. Also, through a quantitative presentation of the two variables studied, Seibers concludes that the variables feature significantly across the regions and reflect African American’s contact with different groups of slave traders including Ulster Scots and many native Americans.

In Chapter 14, “Hypercorrection and the persistence of local dialect features in writing”, Daniel Schreier addresses the “bad data” issue in historical sociolinguistics by studying some ten letters written by two women in 2001 and 2002 in Tristan da Cunha, an island in South Atlantic Ocean where a distinct local English variety developed along with the standard one. Focused on the variable, “present be levelling”, available in the local dialect, Schreier investigates how the letter writing practices present the local dialect characteristics. Findings show one writer employed the variable extensively while the other did something opposite: instead of levelling to present be, the writer used are in similar linguistic circumstances, a phenomenon that Schreier explains as an instance of hypercorrection generally seen in situations of linguistic insecurity. Schreier concludes that without enough historical background and contextual information, data sets like those of letters from the past could potentially lead to misleading interpretations, a scenario that did not affect the study reported in the chapter.

The editors, Anita Auer, Daniel Schreier, and Richard J. Watts, use the final chapter, “Epilogue: where next?”, to make explicit the connecting links among the foregoing chapters, detailing how and to what degree the book’s goal of providing alternative histories of a language has been achieved, responding to some potential objections critics of the collection might raise and showing ways forward for future historical sociolinguistic studies.


The edited collection, Letter writing and language change, by Anita Auer, Daniel Schreier, and Richard J. Watts provides some fascinating studies of historical sociolinguistics as all the chapters coherently contribute to the book’s master-narrative of tracing alternative and multiple versions of a language’s history, especially English and in Chapter 3 German, based on a type of data set that establishes the fact that varieties other than the supposed uniform standard language are the norm represented in the language practices of the overwhelming majority of people in any given period. The book stands out among historical sociolinguistic studies in a number of ways.

The collection strikes a unique balance of studying letter and diary corpora representing all layers of society’s hierarchy and does not get carried away by the focus on the writing by the laboring poor. Most of the chapters are set up theoretically in opposition to the mainstream practice of focusing on the growth and development of a language’s standard variety used by the elite minority, which one can see as the dominant trend in sociolinguistics, but the collection, while pointing out the pitfalls of traditional historical sociolinguistics, does not actually delegitimize their practices of focusing on the standard. Rather they empirically prove that there is more than one way of looking at language change and variation over time, the standard language also being one. In most chapters, the authors study data sets that are likely to be dismissed by the prescriptivists as non-standard: some letters, diaries and personal documents written mostly by the people from a time’s lower socioeconomic strata. But some chapters try to strike a balance by providing perspectives on writing by the elite and aristocratic group of people too. The chapters by Susan Fitzmaurice on English aristocratic letters and by Anita Auer on stylistic variation achieve this objective very nicely.

Moreover, the edited collection does an excellent job of pointing out the methodological conundrums involved in historical sociolinguistic studies like those reported in the book. Given the absence of audio-recording and other contextual information, the attempts to reconstruct a language’s alternative history face a stiff challenge; whether it is the scribal influence on original text dictated by the authors or the editorial impact of the printing process, it is very difficult to know for sociolinguists whether they are studying the actual language used by the writers, an issue most highlighted in Chapter 7 by Alexander Bergs. To address this gap, all the authors provided a contextually rich historical description of the circumstances surrounding the production and distribution of the letters and diaries they studied. In so doing, the authors not only clarify the true nature of the data set but also construct a robust picture how literacy training and schooling were not equally distributed to all people but based on the social hierarchy to reproduce the prevalent social inequality.

The collection also deserves appreciation for its breadth of coverage and focus, as one can find the historical description of a range of varieties other than the British “standard” one. It ranges from Irish English (Chapter 12), Canadian English (Chapter 6), American English, African American English (Chapter 13), New Zealand English (Chapter 5) to even a variety of English in use at Tristan da Cunha island somewhere in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean (Chapter 14), which helps the readers appreciate the depth of intralingual diversity of English in different parts of the world. Moreover, a chapter on German (Chapter 3) reinforces the similar perspective that the mainstream language history is not all in other language scenarios too.

More importantly, the chapters illustrate the affordances and limits of letters as a data set for describing histories of a language. While many find it closer to spoken language, it significantly deviates in many circumstances, as the written language conventions leave an indelible mark on letters, no matter how personal they are as writing. Moreover, as repositories of language norms and conventions, letters often carry language features that are available in neither the local dialect nor the standard variety of the time. This is largely due to the fact that letters develop “a life of their own” often unaffected by contemporary language use as letter writing norms, formulaic phrases and conventions keep disseminating through the social and familial practice of writing letters, especially when the writers have limited schooling and familiarity with standard language of a given time.

That being said, the collection does have some limitations spread out in most of the chapters. This has to do with how the writers contextualize their studies. While a study in historical sociolinguistics does require contextually rich description, many chapters in the collection seem to be overtaken by the background information so much so that many readers may find themselves lost in histories, losing focus of the goal, purposes, and findings of a given chapter. Thus, the problem is more of a degree than kind in providing the historical overviews.

Overall, the edited collection makes some significant strides in uncovering multiple histories of a given language, which should inspire similar studies based on personal documents like letters and diaries in other languages too. Hence, the collection can be easily used as a textbook in any advanced sociolinguistics class or a graduate level seminar on language change over time, especially for those interested in letter data for historical studies of any language.


Mr. Rahman is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Illinois State University, USA. His scholarly interests are in the intersection of applied linguistics and composition studies, especially in areas like ESP/EAP, genre theories, language ideologies, NNEST, and translingualism. He published research articles in platforms like Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development and presented at TESOL, AAAL, and SSLW conferences. Over the years, he taught English courses like first-year-composition, technical and professional writing, L2 writing, and linguistics at Illinois State University, Millikin University, and Northern University Bangladesh. He hopes to continue his university teaching career upon completion of his Ph.D.

Page Updated: 29-Nov-2019