Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. 2003. Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman. Pb. 266pp. ISBN 0 582 319943.

(Published 2003. HSL/SHL 3)

1. General and Readership

This is the book in which historical sociolinguistics has come of age. It is full of top-quality information, representing the fruits of many years of study of variation and change in the English language. While the primary data come from the (Helsinki) Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC), the writers' investigations of specific variables are never separated from linguistic, historical, sociological and methodological issues, so that data and theory support and illuminate each other. The book is impressively complete in its coverage of (especially) the theoretical and methodological concerns of the subject. The main topics investigated belong to the study of variation and change in language at any period and for any language. Indeed, those studying variation and change in any field of human behaviour could benefit from this study. 

2. The Coming of Age

Using electronic corpora in historical linguistics brought with it the possibility of numerically verifiable studies of past states of the language and, as corpora grew and funds and texts became available for larger-scale projects (of which the Helsinki Corpus covers the broadest time period, see Kyt and Rissanen 1996:11), comparisons of linguistic forms between texts, genres, writers and times became increasingly popular research projects. A constant stream of papers dealing with such issues, mostly presenting case studies, found its way into the literature, each study reporting new insights into the language of the past. Some of these have been published together or with other, non-historical corpus-based papers in books such as Aijmer and Altenberg, (1991), Hickey et al. (1997), and Ljung (1997), but it is often hard, especially for students outside departments with a strong interest in historical linguistics, to find or even to learn of the existence of all studies relevant to projects in historical sociolinguistics. Even if the authors do track down all the papers that have been written about their topic, they will find that despite the abundance of diachronic studies dealing with individual linguistic changes over time, it is not easy to find publications that concentrate on the temporal aspects of change, such as timing, rate of change and the S-curve (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:57), and other, broader issues of this nature. There has been no single classic formulation of variation studies in historical linguistics for them to start with, no central text providing a framework for the many research papers belonging to this area of interest. I think this book is the classic that was needed; it certainly provides a framework and reference point for future study. Its contribution to original research is immense, presenting new empirical findings while extending and deepening on-going theoretical discussions; at the same time, a great deal of the data that is found in the book can be used in future research.The time-lines of fourteen changes traced in Chapter 4, for instance, could be used - with care - as a diagnostic test of the forwardness or conservativeness of any given writer of personal correspondence from the same period. In addition, although the book is not intended as a bibliographical resource, it can be used as one, referring as it does to nearly all published related studies as well as putting together the most important of the various arguments and conclusions of socio- and historical linguists.

3. Structure and Contents

(a) Of the book 

Aiming to use studies of fourteen language changes from the Early Modern period1 to test the historical applicability of methodological issues and modern sociolinguistic generalizations (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:10), the work is structured according to the underlying theoretical questions rather than according to the individual studies. Between the first three introductory chapters and the conclusion, the book presents chapters on Real time, Apparent time, Gender, Social Stratification, Regional Variation' and Historical Patterning of Sociolinguistic Variation. There is a useful and somewhat reassuring Appendix I on How to Count Occurrences, in which it is shown that, although variable percentages (i.e. relative frequencies, Woods et al. 1986:9) are considered more revealing, "phenomena frequency (observed frequencies, Woods et al. 1986:9) will often pattern in the same way.This is reassuring, because it is not always possible to have a countable universe of competing forms, and at other times the forms under investigation are so rare or (as Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg note on page 214) so dominated by a single informant's usage that relative frequencies don't mean anything at all. Appendix II provides detailed numerical information related to the studies reported in Chapter 4, and Appendix III gives a list of the letter collections used in the CEEC. The references are (thank God, the authors and the publishers!) listed all together before the index, rather than at the end of each chapter. The index is split into an Author Index and a Subject Index, with the unfortunate result that some information is lost (where are Marx and Weber? Where are the Celys, Henry Machyn, Thomas More and the other named informants?).

(b) Of the chapters

The first three chapters take us from the general (but very precisely discussed) questions what are the objects of study to be dealt with in this book? (Issues in Historical Sociolinguistics) and where does Historical Sociolinguistics fit as a discipline? (Sociolinguistic paradigms and Language Change) to details of the data upon which Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg base their findings (Primary Data: Background and Informants). As elsewhere, we find that the writers present a great deal of information in a condensed form through immediately identifying the main points of an argument or piece of research and citing the relevant publications for readers who are not familiar with the rest of the work. This is not only space saving, but very necessary when so many main points and different works are involved. Another method of presenting information in a condensed but clear way is tabulation, which is used throughout the book for linguistic analysis but here in the opening chapters is also found as a way of presenting historical and methodological issues (for example Table 2.1, Three paradigms in sociolinguistics, which presents the objects, modes of research, fieldwork and descriptive and explanatory aims of each paradigm in parallel columns; Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:18). Within the 52 pages of these first chapters each point leads to the next very rapidly, so a great deal of ground is covered.

Chapters 4 to 9 follow the same structure, in which a relatively brief (but intensely informative) introduction to the theoretical and methodological issues under investigation is presented, followed by the analyses of data and finally a conclusion. The first of these chapters, on real time in historical studies, presents all of the variables studied in the book. Not all of the subsequent chapters include all fourteen of them, because not every one of the sets of data is suitable to every one of the topics of investigation, often for reasons of insufficient background data (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:85), or just of insufficient data. Thus the next chapter, investigating apparent time, includes analyses of only some variables and for only some of the time span of the corpus, because for other variables and periods there are not enough informants whose date of birth is known. Chapter 6, Gender is able to show results for each of the fourteen variables. Having persuasively shown how very important gender is in language change, it is unfortunate that the investigation of social stratification in the next chapter has to exclude all female informants because of the social imbalance between male and female writers in the CEEC, where most female informants belong to the upper ranks, while men represent a broader social spectrum (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:137). Only six of the variables are presented here, and it is not entirely clear why the other eight have been excluded. A comment on page 138 concerning previously published results may indirectly explain the decision to include only six studies, although the results of those earlier studies are not presented at all in this chapter; there is, in addition, a curious (perhaps spurious?) correlation between the missing eight studies and the variables which are still not entirely invariable in present day English usage, listed on page 205. Chapter 8 investigates regional variation in all of the variables, and Chapter 9 investigates multivariate analysis of five of them only, with no reason given for the selection.

The conclusion is an example of what a conclusion should be. Having already presented very impressive results and conclusions at the end of each content chapter, the book's last chapter takes these new insights even further, so that there is a strong sense of discovery and illumination at the end of the book. Fascinating and important discoveries have been presented in each chapter, such as the links between the type of change and the gender of change leaders (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:131), and the sensitive relations pertaining between adoption of a form by the Court and its acceptance as a part of the supralocal stock (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:169). The conclusion continues the multivariate mind-set introduced in Chapter 9, where the relative importance and interactions of extra-linguistic variables like social stratum, region, and gender are investigated by putting together the empirical findings of the book and taking our understanding of these issues even further. At the same time and in this way it presents a response to some criticisms of the discipline, especially the ever-present ghost of Labov's bad data comment (quoted on page 26 and repeated elsewhere), and more recent statements by Milroy (2002) and Trudgill and Watts (2002) concerning the bias of historical studies towards forms that became enshrined in the standard language.

4. Repeated material

This book takes up and further investigates many issues that the CEEC team have previously discussed. There is an especially close affinity between this publication and Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg (1996), which should be mentioned. To start with similarities, the introductory chapters and parts of the introductory sections within later chapters of the 2003 book are very obviously updated and expanded versions of the first three framework chapters of its forerunner. Similar to the new work, in its second part, the 1996 book presents studies based on the CEEC in terms of theoretical issues rather than as descriptive studies of variables. The chapter headings of this part of the earlier book clearly indicate the close relations between the two books: Social stratification, Gender difference Apparent time, and Regional variation in standardization .... Within the first three of these central chapters, the writers use some of the same variables that are found in the later work (YE/YOU, BE/ARE and THE WHICH/WHICH in social stratification, these same three variables plus third person -S/-TH in gender difference, YE/YOU, THE WHICH/WHICH, Relative WHO, third person -S/-TH in Apparent time), but the variables are not analysed in the same way in the two books.

As for differences, the 1996 work presents a series of individual studies as separate chapters by different writers, and has no concluding chapter, so the various findings remain attached to their particular topic foci and further, potentially synthesizing, theoretical speculations remain largely unexplored. This represents the main difference in character between the two books, because the sense of integration of a generation's worth of research that pervades the more recent work is not there in 1996, or at least not to anything like the same extent. In addition, the 2003 book uses a larger, later version of the CEEC which necessarily affects the frequencies of the variables reported. In terms of contents, although there is a great deal of overlapping, especially in the introductory discussions, we may note the increase in the number of studies upon which their conclusions are based and the greater number of quantitative analyses found in 2003 than in the earlier work. In general, the analytic approaches to the data reported are quite different, with the earlier book placing far more emphasis on individual informants than is the case in the book under review. For the 2003 book, as the authors state, they concentrate on macro-level social factors, in order to be able to add to the baseline data (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:11). Finally, 1996 contains chapters by Heikkonen, Palander-Collin and Nurmi, which are not found in the new book, although their findings are included in its discussions. The new book also includes discussion of issues raised in a number of secondary sources that have been published since 1996.

6. General conclusion

One of the many delights in sociohistorical linguistics is the sheer number of important but unanswered questions waiting to be researched. Those of us lucky enough to work in this area need never wonder what to do next, or how to find a subject for a dissertation student. A lecture on the subject can only too easily turn into a list of yet-to-be studied topics. This book manages to maintain the sense of excitement that a relatively new subject can instill alongside an almost encyclopedic coverage of issues.

The questioning of assumptions found in every chapter is extremely valuable, and brings with it that sense of relief that comes when the light of reason is turned towards things too long unexamined. Among the assumptions gently but thoroughly probed here are those of the existence of completely unmonitored speech (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:50, n.2), of the S-curve of language change through time (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:53-54, 79), and of the reliability of apparent time (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:99). In addition we find examinations of fundamental models, such as models of social structure (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:32-38), and of the discrete existence of dialects (the notion that dialects are distinct entities rather than simply shorthand for bundles of linguistic features, Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:160) and discussions of hypotheses such as those concerning the rates and mechanisms of language change (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003:56-57). The thoroughness of the examination that historical sociolinguistics is put through in this book is impressive, and the results are exciting and convincing. And all the while the summaries of previous scholarship and attention to methodological detail are so good that the book can be used as a handbook for researchers.

Margaret J.-M. Snmez, Middle East Technical University,Turkey. (contact the reviewer).


Postscript: Typographical errors

For the sake of future reprintings and editions of the book the publishers should note a typographical error on the last line of page 23 (compsrison), and another error on page 27 where the word underestimate should, I think, read overestimate.



1.The variables involved are: YE/YOU, MY & THY/MINE & THINE, ITS, ONE as a prop word,  Object of Gerund,  Noun Subject of Gerund, 3rd person -S/-TH, Affirmative Periphrastic DO, Negative Periphrastic DO, Multiple Negation, Inversion after adverbs and negators, WHICH/THE WHICH, Prepositional Phrase vs. Relative Adverb, Indefinite pronouns with singular human reference.  



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