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Review of  Historical Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Patrick Studer
Book Title: Historical Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Terttu Nevalainen Helena Raumolin-Brunberg
Publisher: Pearson Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.36

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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.

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 reference.

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 following:

- '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 undertaking.

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

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.