Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Conference report:

Language History from Below - Linguistic Variation in the Germanic Languages from 1700 – 2000, International Conference at the University of Bristol, April 6-8, 2005.

On Wednesday, April 6, about sixty linguists, working in the field of the history of various Germanic languages, gathered in the lecture room of Clifton Hill House, an eighteenth-century merchant’s house, bought by the University of Bristol in 1909 to become the first hall of residence for women. The participants from as many countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Italy, Swiss, Australia and the Netherlands (of which I was the only representative) had one thing in common. They were all prepared to focus on language history from below which, in the words of one of the organisers, implied a change of perspective “from a bird’s eye view to a worm’s eye view”. This witty characterisation still left room for asking what is actually meant by language change “from below”. It was David Denison (Manchester) who in his keynote lecture Syntactic surprises in some English letters: the underlying progress of the language pointed out the ambiguity of the term, i.e. between a change driven by systematic factors below the level of conscious awareness and a change initiated by those lower down the social scale.

During the three subsequent conference days the question “above or below” (in the two distinctive meanings described above) was repeatedly discussed in relation to a variety of linguistic phenomena. My own paper, called “18th-century linguistic variation from the perspective of a Dutch diary and a collection of private letters”, fitted nicely into the stream of corpus-based contributions in which interesting sources, such as ego-documents, were explored and evaluated. Other issues addressed were: the influence of prescriptivism, schooled vs. unschooled speech and writing, language policy and language choice. The papers presented evoked lively discussions, which more often than not continued during breaks and evening meals.

It was the opportunity to encounter colleagues, both young and senior, but all interested in similar problems and cross-linguistic issues, that made the conference such a valuable event. I enjoyed being there and exchanging views with colleagues, many of whom I had met for the first time. Thanks are due to the organisers, Stephan Elspass (Augsburg), Joachim Scharloth (Zürich), Wim Vandenbussche (Brussels) and particularly the local organiser Nils Langer (Bristol), who, together with his enthusiastic team of assistants, did an extremely good job. The four of them took the initiative for what was the third conference on Historical Sociolinguistics in the UK since 2001. It will definitely not be the last one: at the end of the conference the delegates supported a proposal for setting up a scholarly network to ensure closer co-operation in the field. Regular conferences, thematic publications and summer schools are on the agenda as well. I am looking forward to those future initiatives!

Marijke van der Wal (ULCL, NDD, Dutch Language and Culture, The University of Leiden) contact.