Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Conference report

Third Late Modern English Conference,The University of Leiden, The Netherlands, 29 August–1 September 2007

After Edinburgh, at the inception of this conference in 2001, and Vigo in 2004, Leiden University had the honour of hosting the Third Late Modern English conference this summer. The conference was attended by seventy-three participants and, including the two pre-conference workshops, forty-six papers were given, almost twenty of which by PhD students. A complete list of the papers in the conference is given on the Third Late Modern English Conference website.

About twenty scholars took part in the two pre-conference workshops on Wednesday 29 August. The workshop Social Roles and Language Practices in Late Modern English was convened by researchers from the University of Helsinki, and the workshop Rebels or Reactionaries? Romantic writers in the Vanguard / Rearguard of Contemporary Linguistic Change was convened by researchers from the universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and Leiden.

On Thursday morning the conference was opened by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, the chief organiser of the conference, and Geert Booij, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Raymond Hickey delivered the first of the three equally splendid plenary lectures, titled Telling people how to speak on rhetorical grammars and pronouncing dictionaries. Eleven papers followed, covering a great variety of topics, ranging from the progressive to metaphors of politeness, on social networks, and from Quaker speech to pauper letters.

The day was closed with a reception at the old university library building (Oude UB), where the President of Leiden University, Paul van der Heijden gave a short speech. Here also, the first copy of the proceedings from the Second Late Modern English conference in Vigo, signed by the participants of this conference, was presented over the phone to the founding father of the Late Modern English Conference, the regrettably absent Charles Jones, also the founder of the International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL) and the International Conference on English Historical Linguistics (ICEHL).

Friday morning, bright and early, Lynda Mugglestone delivered the second plenary lecture Living History providing a fascinating insight into the workings of the Oxford English Dictionary and the language of the First World War. The plenary was followed by two more papers on dictionaries. The afternoon saw an interesting mix or papers on a variety of grammatical subjects, ranging from phrasal verbs to a socio-geographical account of rhoticity, to so-called ‘easy-constructions’ in the 19th century.

On Friday night, the conference dinner featured a delicious Indonesian buffet at the Arsenaal, accompanied by live jazz music by Bob Rigter.

The Saturday morning plenary lecture “Three Hundred Years of Prescriptivism (and counting…)was delivered by Joan Beal. With its socio-political engagement and spirited attack on “the New Prescriptivism”—especially the return of elocution in Britain—this lecture was arguably the high point of the academic programme. The following parallel session dealt with the use of bibliographical information in historical language research. After the break, the last three papers of the conference all dealt in some way with the issue of prescriptivism.

Recognising the importance of rewarding and encouraging young scholars in this field, the organisers of the conference instituted the Young Scholars Award for the best paper by a PhD student. The prize was awarded at the end of the academic programme and the shared winners were Svenja Kranich from the University of Hamburg with her paper on the interpretative progressive, and Robin Straaijer from Leiden University with a paper on the quantification of prescriptivism.

More participants did not leave empty-handed, as the books on display at the conference were donated by the publishers to be raffled off at the end of the conference. After the busy academic programme, the last afternoon was spent unwinding with one of three excursions. The tour and boat ride in Leiden, a Vermeer-tour of Delft, and a bicycle trip to the beach of Katwijk, were enjoyed by many before heading off home.

In all, the Third Late Modern English Conference can be accounted a great success. Though there was  a wide variety of topics, it should be noted that almost half of the forty-six papers used a corpus- or corpus-like approach. It seems that this type of methodology is what is at present required for academic research on written texts. The quality of the papers presented demonstrates once again how relevant this period is for the history of the English language and points at features that should be analysed in depth. During this conference it has become clear that there is still more research to be done on the Late Modern English period. To that end, the Fourth Late Modern English Conference has already been scheduled for 2010 and is to be hosted by the University of Sheffield, which also is a major centre for the study of the Late Modern English period.


by Fátima María Faya Cerquiero & Robin Straaijer