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Review of  The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Chiara Meluzzi
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: 24.475

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EDITORS: Hernández-Campoy, J.M.; Conde Silvestre, J.M.
TITLE: The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics
SERIES TITLE: Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2012

Chiara Meluzzi, University of Pavia/Free University of Bozen

This new Blackwell Handbook is devoted to Historical Sociolinguistics, and testifies to the maturity of this field in the thirty years since the ground-breaking work of Romaine (1982). Despite the preponderance of studies on English as object language in this field (p. 7), the Handbook collects the contributions of scholars from 30 different universities, working on different languages and data. The Handbook contains a preface by Teresa Fanego, a short introduction by the two editors, Hernández-Campoy and Conde Silvestre, and five sections with a total of 35 chapters. Each chapter has its own references, and a final general index of both subjects and authors cited is provided.

In their introduction, the editors state that the main aim is “to present an up-to-date and in-depth exploration of the extent to which sociolinguistic theoretical models, methods, findings, and expertise can be applied to the process of reconstruction of the past of languages in order to account for diachronic linguistic changes and developments” (p. 4). In this respect, each section is devoted to different aspects of the discipline: part 1 (Origins and Theoretical Assumptions) addresses the main concepts and theoretical goals of the field, and provides a short history of the discipline since Romaine (1982); part 2 (Methods for the Sociolinguistic Study of the History of Languages) deals with the data used in historical sociolinguistics and problems of data collection; part 3 (Linguistic and Socio-demographic Variables) discusses the main levels of variation that could be analyzed, providing both theoretical considerations and specific case-studies on different linguistic data; part 4 (Historical Dialectology, Language Contact, Change and Diffusion) discusses the key notions of language variation and change, and language contact in the light of the findings in Historical Sociolinguistics; finally, part 5 (Attitudes to Language) problematizes the use of common labels such as “prestige” and “standard variety”, by dealing with present and past ideologies that, directly or indirectly, inform linguistic research.

Part 1 (Origins and Theoretical Assumptions) consists of three chapters. Jean Aitchison (Diachrony vs Synchrony: the Complementary Evolution of Two (Ir)reconcilable Dimensions) explores the opposition between synchrony and diachrony, trying to find a conciliatory position between the two poles, as for instance within in work within Grammaticalization). The second chapter by Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (Historical Sociolinguistics: Origins, Motivations, and Paradigms) is a dense and precise summary of the main theoretical and methodological assumptions of Historical Sociolinguistics, with the purpose of “establishing the field” (p. 22). Firstly, the authors briefly discuss the label “historical sociolinguistics” itself, and the goals of the discipline. The field is multidisciplinary in nature and could be seen as the intersection between various fields of research, even if it maintains a primary link with sociolinguistics. They then analyze the problem of data collection in historical sociolinguistics: in dealing with written data, the researcher must always consider the context of documents, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the productions of texts in a specific place and age (e.g. the print process, the written materials available, the writing and reading practices of the time). In this respect, historical sociolinguistics is linked with philology, along with dialectology and variationist sociolinguistics. The role of context, and in particular of social context, is also emphasized in McColl Millar’s contribution (Social History and the Sociology of Language), in which the author provides numerous examples of studies both on English and non-English data to stress the importance of the link between linguistic and socio-historical features.

Part 2 (Methods for the Sociolinguistic Study of the History of Languages) is composed of 8 chapters. Juan M. Hernández-Campoy and Natalie Schilling-Estes’ contribution (The Application of the Quantitative Paradigm to Historical Sociolinguistics: Problems with the Generalizability Principle) deals with the “bad data problem” in historical linguistics. This problem was clearly explained by Labov (1972: 98), who states that “the great art of the historical linguists is to make the best of this bad data, ‘bad’ in the sense that it may be fragmentary, corrupted or many times removed from the actual productions of native speakers”. The “bad data problem” is a central theme in historical sociolinguistics research, even if Hernández-Campoy and Schilling-Estes point out how “developments in information technology and sociohistorical study” (p. 74) could help improve empirical validity and accuracy of research. Alexander Bergs (The Uniformitarian Principle and the Risk of Anachronisms in Language and Social History) explores the usefulness of the Uniformitarian Principle (UP) for (socio)historical linguistic research: namely, the UP states that “the processes which we observe in the present can help us to gain knowledge about processes in the past” (p. 80). The UP could also be expressed in a more probabilistic way in the so-called Uniform Probabilities Principle (see Lass 1997), which expressed “the likelihood of any linguistic state of affairs has always been roughly the same as it is now” (p. 82). Bergs discusses anachronism, always a possible source of trouble in (socio)historical linguistics, even if it has not been extensively discussed yet (p. 83). For instance, the conceptualization of “social class” varies through time, thus it will be awkward to apply a modern definition of this category to ancient data without detailed account (p. 83). The data problem and use of linguistic corpora are also at the core of Pascual Cantos’s chapter (The Use of Linguistic Corpora for the Study of Linguistic Variation and Change: Types and Computational Applications), in which the author deals with the annotation and tagging problems in preparing a corpus up to diachronic investigations. Practical examples of research in this field are provided in the remaining chapters of the section. Nila Vázquez and Teresa Marqués-Aguado (Editing the Medieval Manuscript in its Social Context) study Middle English manuscripts, especially at a phono-morphological level; Laura Esteban-Segura (Medical, Official, and Monastic Documents in Sociolinguistic Research) analyses the use of English, Latin, and French in medieval documents; Stephan Elspass (The Use of Private Letters and Diaries in Sociolinguistic Investigation) moves outside the official documents, by considering the “ego-documents” and the related problem of authorship (see also Oesterreicher 1997); K. Anipa (The Use of Literary Sources in Historical Sociolinguistic Research) offers a detailed review of the state of the art on sociolinguistic research using literary texts, and presents a case study on Shakespearian language and spelling problems; finally, Carol Percy (Early Advertising and Newspapers as Sources of Sociolinguistic Investigation) illustrates the materials and corpora already available for both synchronic and diachronic studies on language of newspapers and advertisements.

Part 3 (Linguistic and Sociodemographic Variables) consists of 8 chapters, each taking into account one different linguistic or social variable. “Orthographic Variables” are the topic and title of Hanna Rutkowska and Paul Rössler’s chapter, which represents a starting point for research considering orthography as an independent variable, whereas previous literature has considered it only as index of the degree of accuracy of a text. Anna Hebda’s contribution (Phonological Variables) considers phonological variation in both the English and Arabic of Jordanian women. Anita Auer and Anja Voeste (Grammatical Variables) consider the classification of variables in linguistic research and how this could be specifically applied in historical sociolinguistic analysis; the authors also propose an apparent-time approach to circumvent the problem of lack of data in historical studies, as has already been done for English and French (e.g. Bailey 1989). Joachim Grzega (Lexical-Semantic Variables) explores the complex theme of lexical change and borrowing, by referring in particular to his own CoSMOS model (Grzega 2007), together with the main work on lexical borrowing (e.g. Haugen 1950, Weinreich 1953). Andreas H. Jucker and Irma Taavitsainen (Pragmatic Variables) explore the role of pragmatics, and how to detect pragmatic variables in historical linguistic studies, especially in the analysis of personal pronouns, insertions, and utterances in different languages. The remaining chapters of this section explore different social variables. Agnieska Kiełkiewicz-Janowiak (Class, Age and Gender-based Patterns) discusses the representativeness of social variables in the corpora usually used for historical sociolinguistic analysis, emphasizing how these corpora are often “stylistically unbalanced, with informal styles under-represented” (p. 309). Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre (The Role of Social Networks and Mobility in Diachronic Sociolinguistics) proposes examples of application of networks analysis in historical sociolinguistic researches, by referring to the division between “ego-centric” and “socio-centric” networks introduced by Barnes (1972). Finally, Rajend Mesthrie (Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and Castes) considers the use of labels like “race” and “ethnicity” in past and present research.

The fourth part (Historical Dialectology, Language Contact, Change and Diffusion) is the longest, with 11 chapters devoted both to theoretical and practical issues emerging from the intersection between historical sociolinguistics and studies on language variation and change. Paul T. Roberge’s chapter (The Teleology of Change: Functional and Non-Functional Explanations for Language Variation and Change) is almost theoretical in nature, and tries to define a theoretical frameworks that fits for historical sociolinguistics. Raymond Hickey’s contribution (Internally- and Externally- Motivated Language Change) also discusses the theory of language change, together with some examples where a mixture of internal and external motivations leads to language change. Brian D. Joseph (Lexical Diffusion and the Regular Transmission of Language) explores the concepts of “diffusion”, “transmission” and “language change”, by emphasizing how the first two are “crucial notions in historical linguistic investigations: transmission and diffusion together, in a sense, give the historical dimension to language” (p. 421): indeed, one of the main goals of the historical sociolinguistic paradigm is to understand the different mechanisms of language change. Different models of “lexical diffusion” are then analyzed by Mieko Ogura (The Timing of Language Change), who also offers many examples almost exclusively in English. A similar theme is also analyzed by David Britain (Innovation Diffusion in Sociohistorical Linguistics), who refers back to the Milroyian difference between “diffusion” and “change” (Milroy & Milroy 1982). Anneli Meurman-Solin’s contribution (Historical Dialectology: Space as a Variable in the Reconstruction of Regional Dialects) moves back to the problem of variables, by dealing with the complex notion of “space” in sociolinguistic and dialectological research: the author refers to Britain (2002) division of “space” into the three dimensions of Euclidean (i.e. objective), social and perceived space, and she also states that “the validity of the variable ‘space’ can be usefully assessed by relating it to other variables” (p. 469). Space variable is also the topic of Roland Kehrein’s chapter (Linguistic Atlases: Empirical Evidence for Dialect Change), which traces the history of dialectology and language atlases, and introduces the Digitaler Wenker-Atlas (DiWA) framework. The relation between the variables “place” and “time” is explored by Matthew Toulmin (Historical Sociolinguistic Reconstruction Beyond Europe: Case Studies from South Asia and Fiji), who provides two practical examples of reconstruction of phylogenetic relations of dialects and languages from South Asia and Fiji by using the Comparative Method (CM). Moving back to English, the chapters by Herbert Schendl (Multilingualism, Code-Switching, and Language Contact in Historical Sociolinguistics) and Daniel Schreier (The Impact of Migratory Movements on Linguistic Systems: Transplanted Speech Communities and Varieties from a Historical Sociolinguistic Perspective) analyze the emergence of Middle English and of New Zealand English respectively. The final chapter of the section by Roger Wright (Convergence and Divergence in World Languages) examines the notions of “divergence”, “fragmentation” and “convergence”, applying them to the situation in the Latin-speaking area and to subsequent emergence of Romance varieties; the author then surveys the possible development lines of modern “diffused” languages, namely Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English.

The fifth and final part (Attitudes to Languages) presents five remarkable contributions. James Milroy (Sociolinguistics and Ideologies in Language History) considers the problematic notion of “prestige”, and how it has influenced the conceptualization of language change triggered only internally by traditional historical linguistics (p. 573). He also remarks on how the notion of “standard variety” itself is an ideological concept, since the standard variety of a language is often assumed to be the most prestigious. Richard J. Watts (Language Myths) also moves from similar considerations, and he discusses the so-called “myths” of “linguistic homogeneity” and “pure language”. “Pure language” is then the main topic of Nils Langer and Agnete Nesse’s contribution (Linguistic Purism): the authors refer to van der Sijs (1999), pointing out how “linguistic purism only occurs in standardized languages or in languages in the process of standardization”, since standard language is “not just a vehicle for supraregional communication but also a social norm” (p. 612). Anni Sairio and Minna Palander-Collins’s chapter (The Reconstruction of Prestige Patterns in Language History) also relate to the notion of standard, and more specifically of prestige, by referring to the “ecology of language” paradigm (see Haugen 1972). Finally, the last contribution by Catharina Peersman (Written Vernaculars in Medieval and Renaissance Times) is a summary of the theoretical and methodological problems discussed in the Handbook, applied to the practical case of medieval manuscripts and corpora available for the analysis of early romance languages.

The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics represents a huge effort to bring order to the theoretical and methodological foundations of this new discipline, but at the same time it prepares the field for further systematic research. The large set of contributions has been well organized by the editors, who offer a systematic survey of theory, method, and still open problems together with practical examples of work carried out in the paradigm. At the core of past, present and future research there is still the so-called “bad data problem”, a central theme for scholars working in historical sociolinguistics. The “bad data problem” directly refers to the level of philological awareness of the researcher working on historical written texts. However, the role of philology and its possible contribution to this field are not always emphasized by contributors, and that could be a potential source of trouble, especially for scholars coming from (modern) sociolinguistics and approaching the analysis of historical data. Also related to the problem of data collection is the role of corpora in historical (socio)linguistic analysis: as the contributions in this handbook show, English remains the most studied language within historical sociolinguistics, in part because of the large amount of corpora already available for the study of this language and its varieties. One of the main objectives for future scholars in this and other related fields of research must be the creation of new corpora of written texts of different languages from different periods, and also to expand the preexisting ones for historical sociolinguistics research.

In conclusion, the Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics represents an important contribution to linguistic research, providing tools and models of explanation, together with case studies to exemplify work in the field. This handbook, then, helps clarify the main theoretical and methodological aims of the discipline, as well as possible connections with different linguistic fields (e.g. corpus linguistics). In this respect, the Handbook represents both an excellent summary of the state of the art in historical sociolinguistics and a good starting point for further research.

Bailey. Guy. 1989. Sociolinguistic Constraints on Language Change and the Evolution of ‘Are’ in Early Modern English. In J.B. Trahern, Jr. (ed.). Standardizing English. Essays in the History of Language Change. In Honour of John Hurt Fisher. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 158-71.

Barnes. John. A. 1972. Social Networks. Module in Anthropology 26. 1-29.

Britain. David. 2002. Space and Spatial Diffusion. In J.K. Chambers, P. Trudgill & N. Schilling-Estes (eds.). The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell. 603-37.

Grzega. Joachim. 2007. Summary, Supplement and Index for J. Grzega (2004). Onomasiology Online 8. 18-196.

Haugen. Einar. 1950. The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing. Language 26. 210-31.

Haugen. Einar. 1972. The Ecology of Language. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change. Vol. 1. Internal Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lass, Roger. 1997. On Explaining Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milroy, James & Milroy, Lesley. 1985. Linguistic Change, Social Network and Speaker Innovation. Journal of Linguistics 21. 339-84.

Nevalainen, Terttu. & Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena. 2003. Historical Sociolinguistics. Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England, London: Longman/Pearson Education.

Oesterreicher, Wulf. 1997. Types of Orality in Text. In E. Bakker & A. Kahane (eds.). Written Voices, Spoken Signs, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 190-214.

Romaine, Suzanne. 1982. Socio-historical Linguistics: its Status and Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de Linguistique Générale. Paris. Payot & Rivages.

Sijs. Nicoline. van der. 1999. Taaltrots. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact.

Weinreich. Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. The Hague: Mouton.

Chiara Meluzzi is a PhD student in Linguistics at University of Pavia and Free University of Bozen (Italy). After an MA dissertation on the sociolinguistics of Ancient Greek comedy (University of Eastern Piedmont-Vercelli), her PhD thesis provides a sociophonetic analysis of the Italian variety spoken in Bozen (South Tyrol, Italy). Her main research interests include sociolinguistics, sociophonetics, language variation and change, as well as historical linguistics and pragmatics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 140519068X
ISBN-13: 9781405190688
Pages: 704
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