Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Conference report

Colloque international de sociolinguistique historique du domaine gallo-roman:  Enjeux et méthodologies d’un champ disciplinaire émergeant (“International colloquium on historical sociolinguistics in the gallo-romance domain: challenges and methodologies of an emerging discipline”), 8-9 June 2007, Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Organisers: Andres Kristol, Sara Cotelli and Dorothée Aquino. Conference website.

One of the main factors that inspired the organisation of this colloquium was the observation that there was a total lack of any centralised forum on historical sociolinguistics (HSL) in the domain of romance languages. The organisers wished to remedy this situation by assembling a select panel of colleagues involved in the study of social history of the romance languages, in order to further the theoretical foundations of the discipline, as well as to create closer ties between scholars working (be it often rather isolated) on similar topics in different areas of the gallo-roman territory.

Much like during the HiSoN meeting on the future of (Germanic) historical sociolinguistics in December 2006, the discipline emerged from this meeting as a very wide and diverse field, spanning the study of sixteenth-century witchcraft trials records, nineteenth-century century lower-class letters and twentieth-century film dialogues, as well as theoretical considerations of interpreting and handling historical sources, the issue of “bad data” and the tension between real-life language use and its literary representation.

Andres Kristol’s (Neuchâtel) introduction focussed on a number of “source problems”, one of the crucial methodological issues in HSL and the main factor that separates historical sociolinguistics from its present-day counterpart. Taking the example of bilingual texts in literary sources, he illustrated, among other things, how divergent the literary representation of “linguistic reality” can be from the actual linguistic situation. Scholars need to be aware of the risk of anachronistic judgments, in other words (data should always be interpreted in the context of the time at which they were written) as well as of the ideological background of linguistic reconstructions/retroprojections. 
Sara Cotelli (Neuchâtel) launched the meeting with a concise overview of the existing literature in historical sociolinguistics so far, both within and outside the romance language area. Discussing a series of central concepts, definitions, terminological issues (“historical sociolinguistics” versus “diachronic” or “retrospective sociolinguistics”, for example) and recurring methodological problems in these publications, she provided a solid and much-welcomed theoretical backbone for the meeting. 

Sonia Branca (Paris 3) foregrounded the opposition between “le français normal” and “le français normé” (normal vs. normalised French) as a key issue of the meeting. She pleaded for the increased study of lexical and morphological aspects of language change in the context of romance HSL. Drawing on her research in the domain of unschooled/partially-schooled scribes from eighteenth-century France, she discussed the orthographical competence and formulaic output of scribes who entered the writing-oriented sphere (e.g. administration) for the very first time. As far as methodological issues are concerned, she pointed out that these sources do not offer a representation of the actual oral language at the time, nor do they offer us information on the role of writing for the scribes’ social identities.

Catharina Peersman (Leuven) presented the project outline for an analysis of twelfth-fourteenth century French-language charters from the Ninove (Belgium) abbey, a locality on the crossroads of various political and linguistic borders at the time. The presentation provided a detailed case study of the classic “bad data” issues encountered by many historical sociolinguists, especially in those cases where the researcher cannot build on previously compiled diplomatic and critical editions.

George Lüdi (Basel) elaborated upon the possible contribution of linguists to a better understanding of the witchcraft trials in Switzerland and Germany between the mid fourteenth and late sixteenth centuries. Analysing both the lexical fields and the formal make-up used for the confession records, he illustrated how a specific reality was constructed with linguistic means through these texts. Looking at the dominant metaphors in these documents, it becomes possible to distinguish between both German and Swiss, as well as between Protestant and Catholic confession styles.

Yana Grinspun (Paris 3) focussed on the French construction “O + nominal group” (of the type “Oh Gods!”, “Oh sky!”, etc.) in the works of Bossuet, Massillon, Corneille and Racine. One of the things she dealt with was how the frequent use of this construction could be connected to the schooling of the authors concerned — a Jesuit training with great attention for eloquence and classical rhetoric seems to account for higher frequencies. Departing form this observation, she suggested the possibility of introducing the concept of “socio-rhetorical communities” as a valid and explanatory tool in the analysis of the corpus at hand.

Starting from the observation that an extremely rich array of sources is available for the study of the social history of French, Anthony Lodge (St Andrews) focussed on the category of literary representations of the spoken language.  Using the “Sarcelades” — satirical texts composed to ridicule the elite at the time — he showed that the dialect markers that were inserted in these texts were not representative of the actual vernacular. We rather get extremely high concentrations of highly stigmatised forms that were salient on the level of social identification, forms which were perfectly fit to accomplish the goal of social satire and ridicule.

Dorothée Aquino (Neuchâtel) presented a project that will analyse the “Mémoires d’un Fouban philosophe”, a nineteenth-century literary text that was used by Victor Hugo and others as a source of “argot” terminology. Research indicates that both argot and the Parisian dialect were used by the author to characterise/stigmatise a series of characters in the novel as belonging to a specific (low) social class. As such, the text gives a literary representation of the opposition between the educated bourgeois speech and the lower variety of the working classes. The text also contains a literary imitation of a letter allegedly written by a minimally-schooled writer. A discussion on the reliability of this literary representation of lower class-speech complemented the findings discussed above and below by Lodge, Branca and Martineau.

Fañch Broudic (Université de Brétagne Occidentale) applied the concept of historical sociolinguistics to language contact situations between romance and non-romance languages. Using the case of Breton and French, he presented both a historical overview of the sociolinguistic evolution of the Breton language and a state-of-the-art of its present-day speech community. Comparing questionnaires on language attitudes and language practice from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Brittany, this contribution introduced issues of language loss and bilingualism into the colloquium’s larger theme.

René Merle (Montpellier) discussed methodological aspects of analysing late eighteenth and nineteenth-century texts written in “langue d’oc” and “franco-provençal”. He referred to the fact that a number of these texts tended to be rewritten by corpus compilers (the so-called “Mistralian” associations) at the level of orthography and lexis. A further warning concerned the overt ideological motivations behind the education in langue d’oc literature. While corpora in “langue d’oc” and “franco-provençal” had already been set up, it is now time for the actual linguistic analysis of these texts.

Aurélie Joubert (Manchester) gave an outline of her PhD project in which she intends to compare the sociolinguistic evolution of Occitan and Catalan. Key questions concern the way in which the linguistic norms of these languages were established, and the differences between the respective sociopolitical contexts in which both languages evolved. Language-ideological aspects will equally be addressed, thus highlighting the issue of the identity conflict raised by the tension between national unity and regional diversity, both in the respective national contexts of Occitan and Catalan, as well as within the setting of the European Union.

France Martineau’s  (Ottawa) paper on language use in France and Nouvelle-France from the seventeenth century onwards dealt with the development of norms for written French in Europe and Canada. Using a series of corpora compiled in two major projects (“les voies di français” and “laboratoire de français familier ancient”), she analysed the origins of Canadian French, the linguistic relation to its Parisian counterpart, and the social stratification within both varieties. Her analysis of original sources (including ego-documents like letters and journals, but also songs and theatre texts) allowed her to trace the independent evolution of both varieties, showing, for example, that grammatical and morphological constructions that had become stigmatised in France by the end of the eighteenth century continued to be used in Canada. 

Michael Abecassis (Oxford) introduced the analysis of spoken language into the colloquium with a contribution on the representation of Parisian French in three French films from the period 1930-1940. This variety was overtly used to convey a lower-class identity to film characters and to stress the clear-cut (and very theatrical) distinction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in “Les enfants du paradis”, “Boudu sauvé des eaux” and “La chienne”. Analyses of lexical (i.e. dialectal) variation and word frequency in these films convincingly illustrated how the “patois de Paris” was a key element for the creation of “social caricatures” on the big screen.

Fabienne Baider (Cyprus) explored the crossroads between gender studies and diachronic linguistics. She argued that an “études feminists” approach to historical sociolinguistics could contribute to the understanding of “erasure” processes in dominant language-ideological discourses. Counting the occurrence of feminine nouns in a series of dictionaries, she found that the treatment of these words was both marginal and negative, an evolution that seems to be supported by the policies of the “francophonie” at large.

The closing talk by Alexandre Duchêne (Basel) on globalisation and language ideologies stressed once again the crucial importance of a sound understanding of the historical context in which a text is produced or a specific language ideology is developed. His plea for a true “historicising sociolinguistics” aimed at cross-fertilising theories of social change with views on language evolution.

Both the discussions during the colloquium and the striking degree of shared methodological and theoretical issues across the various contributions confirmed the need for this fruitful meeting. One can only congratulate the organisers for the stimulating and rich programme they put together, for the excellent organisation of the meeting and, above all, for their hospitality that reached “far beyond the call of duty”.

Wim Vandenbussche (Free University Brussels).