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Review of  The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Kent Rasmussen
Book Title: The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.65

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Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


This handbook's intended audience is “scholars and students” (p4), and as such aims to provide the field theoretical and methodological frameworks, rather than significant amounts of new data. Two other stated goals include the recognition of the field and “to introduce new scholars into the field”(p7). One could imagine this used as a textbook in a graduate class on historical sociolinguistics, though it is not oriented towards students exclusively.

The volume contains a wide variety of writing in its 35 chapters, by 44 contributors. There are a number of themes that are repeated, however, which I take for themes of the volume itself.

The primary theme of the volume would be that language is essentially variable. As such, the historical sociolinguist is looking to understand language as it really was, rather than to limit it to a more easily understandable system. This essentially unifies Historical linguistics with Sociolinguistics. That is, both approaches deal with variation: Historical linguistics deals with diachronic variation, and sociolinguistics deals with synchronic variation. Each deals with phenomena that other linguists may prefer to set aside.

When variation is considered both in and across time, tracking variation becomes more difficult, aggravating Labov's ''bad data'' problem (1994:11). Thus another general theme of this volume is addressing difficulties related to historical sociolinguistic data. This theme is combined, however, with the hope that valid research can be done. The difficulties inherent in finding good historical sociolinguistic data are presented from a variety of perspectives in a number of chapters. At the same time, each offers pathways by which good data can be discovered, providing useful insight into future areas of research.

Within these unifying themes, the volume is divided into five sections, called “parts”, each with 3-10 chapters. The first three (assumptions, methods, and variables) are followed by a section on specific issues relevant to the subdiscipline, which is followed by a section on language attitudes. Each chapter stands on its own as a scholarly work, though on a number of occasions one chapter will refer to another. The following summarizes each section, including brief chapter summaries.

Part I: Origins and Theoretical Assumptions

This section contains background and basic theoretical information, which is referred to in later chapters. In “Diachrony vs Synchrony: the Complementary evolution of Two (Ir)reconcilable Dimensions”, Jean Aitchison discusses the historical divide between synchrony and diachrony from Saussure to Labov and beyond, ultimately concluding that language of the past and present overlap, and that each should be understood in context of the other.

In “Historical Sociolinguistics: Origins, Motivation, and Paradigms”, Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg look at the history of historical sociolinguistics, as well as its current diversified nature. They also include an interesting case study on -s and -th in Early Modern English.

In “Social History and the Sociology of Language”, Robert McColl Millar looks at historical change in a number of forms. He deals with the issue of language and dialect, as well as changing standards of prestige in a language group. There is a case study of shift from German to Hungarian, with some interesting counterexamples in illegal trade and religion. This chapter generally talks of language shift as a gradual, rather than traumatic event. For instance, semispeakers can result from children learning a status language first, followed by their parents' language.

Part II: Methods for the Sociolinguistic Study of the History of Languages

The first two chapters of this part focus on philosophical background necessary for the right application of methodology. In “Application of the Quantitative Paradigm to Historical Sociolinguistics: Problems with the Generalizability Principle”, Juan M. Hernandez-Campoy and Natalie Schilling discuss making the best of “bad data” through quantifying it. They discuss a number of potential problems with the quality of data: representativeness, validity, invariation (e.g., standardized written texts), authenticity, authorship, social/historical validity, and interpretation being affected by a standard ideology. Some of these issues are presented with at least partial solutions, but the main intent seems to be to raise awareness of them. In “The Uniformitarian Principle and the Risk of Anachronisms in Language and Social History”, Alexander Bergs discusses the principle of interpretation that we expect laws (physical and linguistic) in effect today to be the same as they have (ever) been. While this principle allows us to draw conclusions about the past which we can no longer observe, there is also a risk of assuming what was not actually true of an earlier period. Examples given include social class and social networks: we know that social classes did not operate in the same manner in the middle ages as they do today; on the other hand, it is difficult to know if social networks operated the same as they do today, or not.

The remaining six chapters in this part deal with particular kinds of data corpora. In “The Use of Linguistic Corpora for the Study of Linguistic Variation and Change: Types and Computational Applications”, Pascual Cantos discusses the availability, evaluation, and use of a number of corpora. In “Editing the Medieval Manuscript in its Social Context”, Nila Vázquez and Teresa Marqués-Aguado discuss issues related to the editing of manuscripts, especially how editorial decisions may “standardize” variation that would be interesting to a historical sociolinguist. In “Medical, Official and Monastic Documents in Sociolinguistic Research”, Laura Esteban-Segura gives specific information on a number of texts, including digitized scans of a couple pages. In “The Use of Private Letters and Diaries in Sociolinguistic Investigation”, Stephan Elspass discusses the use of different kinds of writing to get at the distinction in language normally associated with oral vs written language. Essentially, private letters by semi-literate people can be taken to generally represent the spoken form. He concludes with criteria for designing and editing corpora. In “The Use of Literary Sources in Historical Sociolinguistic Research”, K. Anipa proposes a theoretical-methodological model based in micro-sociolinguistics. In “Early Advertising and Newspapers as Sources of Sociolinguistic Investigation”, Carol Percy discusses the use of printed material with a particular aim, to “attract, inform, influence and/or entertain readers.” (p191) Newspapers are useful to understand the social context of the time, since they are reporting on it, but they also give a source of data which by its nature is indexed over time.

Part III: Linguistic and Socio-demographic Variables

The part deals with the variables in the historical sociolinguistic study of language. Each of these variables can be controlled and/or operationalized for a clearer picture of the historical facts.

In “Orthographic Variables”, Hanna Rutkowska and Paul Rössler give a broad overview of principles of orthography, as well as some of the specific variations that can be expected in a writing system. In “Phonological Variables”, Anna Hebda discusses phonology in historical sociolinguistics, especially in medieval English. In “Grammatical Variables”, Anita Auer and Anja Voeste give theory and methodology of historical grammar variation. In “Lexical-Semantic Variables”, Joachim Grzega introduces a new theory, the Cognitive and Social Model for Onomasiological Studies (CoSMOS). In “Pragmatic Variables”, Andreas H. Jucker and Irma Taavitsainen give a good overview of the historical use of pragmatics. In “Class, Age and Gender-based Patterns”, Agnieszka Kiełkiewicz-Janowiak writes about the variation seen in data from typically underrepresented sources, with particular view to reverse the natural tendency of the lack/loss of data from the less literate.

In “The Role of Social Networks and Mobility in Diachronic Sociolinguistics”, Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre discusses the relationship between stability and change, and between speakers and systems. Particular conclusions include the fact that loose-knit networks favor innovations, and the distinction between innovators (who are peripheral network members) and early adopters (who are influential network members). In “Race, Ethnicity, Religion and Castes”, Rajend Mesthrie gives a decent overview of the concept of race, followed by a serial treatment of the other topics.

Part IV: Historical Dialectology, Language Contact, Change, and Diffusion

The first two chapters in this part deal with theoretical background necessary for understanding and explaining language change. In “The Teleology of Change: Functional and Non-Functional Explanations for Language Variation and Change”, Paul T. Roberge discusses interpretations of language change, including variation and dialects as identity markers, and teleological reasoning. In “Internally and Externally Motivated Language Change”, Raymond Hickey looks at the dichotomy between the forces involved in internal and external language change, and concludes that linguistic reality is too complex for this binary distinction.

The next three chapters address the mechanics of diffusion. In “Lexical Diffusion and the Regular Transmission of Language Change in its Socio-historical Context”, Brian D. Joseph writes about the passing of a language from one generation to another, as compared to the passing of elements from one language to another. Both are found at the interface of the individual and society. In “The Timing of Language Change”, Mieko Ogura moves from the Neogrammarian sound change hypothesis (lexical regularity and phonetic gradualness) to a S(peaker) and W(ord) diffusion paradigm. In “Innovation Diffusion in Sociohistorical Linguistics”, David Britain discusses the transfer of language elements from person to person through daily contact, and ways to get at that operating in the past through understanding it in the present.

The following two chapters deal with language change in space. In “Historical Dialectology: Space as a Variable in the Reconstruction of Regional Dialects”, Anneli Meurman-Solin looks that the use and impact of physical, social and perceptual space. In “Linguistic Atlases: Empirical Evidence for Dialect Change in the History of Languages”, Roland Kehrein gives a dense history of the use of maps in linguistic study.

In “Historical Sociolinguistic Reconstruction beyond Europe: Case Studies from South Asia and Fiji”, Matthew Toulmin treats the comparative method in light of dialect continua. That is, assuming an invariant source language will provide invalid results if that language included variation, as would be expected. The argument includes two case studies, and a conclusion with proposed change to the comparative method to account for this problem.

The final three chapters in this part deal with language change through contact. In “Multilingualism, Code-switching and Language Contact in Historical Sociolinguistics”, Herbert Schendl focuses on historical codeswitching, with a study in medieval Britain. He concludes that changes are best viewed as impacted by language contact, not just language-internal forces. In “The Impact of Migratory Movements on Linguistic Systems: Transplanted Speech Communities and Varieties from a Historical Sociolinguistic Perspective”, Daniel Schreier discusses the relationship between language/dialect contact and migration. In “Convergence and Divergence in World Languages”, Roger Wright discusses the breakup of Proto-Indo-European, the convergence of Latin during the Roman empire, and the divergence of Latin during the breakup of that empire. Concluding elements that allow for convergence are communication between groups, a unified orthography, and a lack of political interference. Questions are also raised about the future of modern languages, given the impact of mass media.

Part V: Attitudes to Language

The first three chapters in this part deal with attitudes and behaviors which are detrimental to a clear understanding of the historical language facts. In “Sociolinguistics and Ideologies in Language History”, James Milroy looks at biases which are purportedly excluded from linguistic works, yet still found. These include glorifying the history of a language, considering creoles and pidgins 'abnormal', and the concept of prestige. The desire to have an invariant object of study may lead some to exclude variations from non-prestigious origins, losing the variation truly present in the language. In “Language Myths”, Richard J. Watts looks at basic false ideologies that impact the study of past languages, including the funnel/tunnel view, which includes the idea that the point of history is to reach the present (the teleological fallacy). several other myths are addressed, including the link between language and culture “purity”, which leads some to conclude that the linguistic breakdown of English implies the social breakdown of English-speaking culture. In “Linguistic Purism”, Nils Langer and Agnete Nesse address multiple perspectives on linguistic purism, essentially the belief/desire/action to remove foreign and/or undesirable elements from a language, primarily the lexicon. Some linguistic purists are concerned with foreign material only, while others take issue with internal objectionable lexical items, as well. But in most cases, the purist focuses on one source, not all potential “impurities”. Purism is accomplished and justified by anthropomorphizing the language, and mostly by core speakers who have observed changes in language and/or culture after the formation of their own standards.

The final two chapters in this part deal with prestige. In “The Reconstruction of Prestige Patterns in Language History”, Anni Sairio and Minna Palander-Collin look at prestige from several aspects. It is multidisciplinary, yet unstable, and it is found on multiple levels: nationally, social network, and individual. This is in part because linguistic innovations get prestige from those that adopt them. A final warning to researchers that prestige can impact which languages are studied (at least by those subject to that perception of prestige). In “Written Vernaculars in Medieval and Renaissance Times”, Catharina Peersman looks at literacy in the middle ages, where Latin was taken as the model. Shifting from that normative model to a vernacular, while also shifting a vernacular language from oral to written use, was a complex process which worked against the previous prestige attitudes.


Given the stated goal of reaching both students and scholars, it is difficult for one person to say how well both of those audiences might be reached in a book such as this. But as a doctoral student, I'm not sure that this book will attain its goal “to introduce new scholars into the field”. Some chapters were written in a style that was highly accessible (e.g., 5, 12, 16 and 23), where the goal of the writer could clearly and quickly be discerned. Others were more opaque (e.g., 6, 8, 10, 15, 22 and 29). Most students (if not other researchers) place a high value on the readability of material. In addition to the stylistic variables mentioned above, there was considerable variation in organization between chapters. Some chapters (e.g., 3, 12 and 21) had three levels of sections, while chapter 1 had no section divisions at all, except for a short conclusion. A few used good, communicative graphics (e.g., 14 and 24); but most had no tables, charts or figures at all. Some had graphics, but did not clearly link them to the adjacent prose (e.g., 15). There were few clear roadmaps in the volume; most that were present were not particularly explicit, so the reader was often left to deduce where the author was going with the chapter.

When entering a new field of study, understanding the basic assumptions of the field is important; a number of those were clearly laid out in Part I. But some chapters (e.g., ch 10) explicitly assumed additional background, while still others did not make those assumptions explicit (e.g., comprehension of Medieval English in ch 13). Despite this shortcoming, each chapter did have an adequate number of citations, so the dedicated initiate should be able to look up background material where necessary.


Labov, William. 1994. Principles of language change: Internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.
I am a doctoral student at UT Arlington, interested in tone and some other phonology. I work in eastern D.R.Congo, where I hope to do some comparative work on Bantu D languages.

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