Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Anni Sairio (2009), Language and Letters of The Bluestocking Network. Sociolinguistic Issues in Eighteenth-Century Epistolary English.
Tome LXXV. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.
365 pages.

Received May 2010, published August 2010 (HSL/SHL 10)

In this study, Anni Sairio presents the results of her thorough examination of the language of the eighteenth-century Bluestocking network. She examines this network from a diachronic point of view, using the methods and frameworks of corpus linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, and social network analysis. The Bluestocking circle consisted of learned and virtuous men and women with philanthropical goals, such as rescueing lower-class women from exploitation and feminising the processes of modernisation. They also took an interest in the education of women, particularly women of their own social rank.

Sairio’s study covers four decades (1738-1778) and she mainly focuses on one of the eminent figures of the network, namely Elizabeth Montagu, née Robinson, the Shakespearean scholar who lived from c. 1718-1800. Elizabeth Robinson - born and raised in Kent (UK) - was married to Edward Montagu in 1742. Edward Montagu was a wealthy MP, twenty years her senior. In her younger days Elizabeth was acquainted with Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the later Duchess of Portland. Elizabeth frequently visited the Portland residence, where she became acquainted with a lot of intelligent and entertaining people. This so-called Portland circle was her model for hosting an intellectual circle herself. Later in her life, when she had become one of the central figures of the Bluestocking network, her former experience helped her in maintaining and extending this new network. 

In fact, it is this Portland circle as well as the Bluestocking circle and Elizabeth Montagu’s family network which Sairio examines. Sairio composed a corpus of 218 letters, all autographs. The majority of these letters were written by Elizabeth Montagu to her closest and most intimate friends and relatives, and these letters are likely to contain the most informal language. Sairio also selected at least three letters written to Elizabeth Montagu for each of the four periods (1738-1778). For the limited Bluestocking corpus (154,000 words) Sairio focuses on micro-level language use, dealing with both syntactic and spelling variation. On the syntactic level, she examines two phenomena: the progressive - a developing feature in eighteenth-century English - and preposition stranding, a feature that might have been influenced by the normative tradition. As a result of changed attitudes to the acceptability of the construction, implying stigmatization, pied piping became the preferred variant against preposition stranding in the course of the eighteenth century.

However, Sairio’s main focus is on spelling variation, and she discusses the epistolary spelling of preterites, past participles and auxiliary verbs. Eighteenth-century epistolary spelling deviated from that used in printed material, a phenomenon known as the dual standard of spelling. For example, contracted forms, like sav’d, sav d and savd, were quite common in private letters, but in the course of the century criticism increased and possibly affected the spelling of the Bluestockings. For all of these features Sairio intends to answer the question how they changed over time, whether there was influence from prescriptive grammars and whether social networks and/or sociolinguistic variables influenced the choice of the variants. Last but not least Sairio examines how fruitful the social network approach is in explaining language variation at a historical micro-level.

Regarding language change and the influence of prescriptive grammars, Sairio’s results show innovation in the decreasing occurrence of preposition stranding, particularly in wh-relative clauses, in favour of pied piping. This rather early avoidance of preposition stranding can be linked to increased normative and proscriptive attitudes, but the Bluestocking network seems ahead of the normative grammarians. And this suggests, according to Sairio, that the normative tradition might have re-enforced an already existing trend rather than the other way around. On the other hand, the attested ratio of full versus contracted spellings rather points to language maintenance: the letter writers mainly retained an old-fashioned spelling style. The usage of contractions seems to have been an essential part of epistolary spelling; perhaps these letter writers were conservative spellers who stuck to a system once learned in their youth, although for example auxiliary contractions were criticised and considered impolite and vulgar.

As for the influence of sociolinguistic variables, Sairio finds that gender, as well as rank and register are relevant variables in spelling variation: contracted spellings were mainly used by women writing to female social equals or female family members. Perhaps a bit disappointing is the fact that Sairio has to conclude that social network ties had little or no influence on the choice of the variants, whereas gender, register and social rank proved to be significant variables. This leads to the tentative conclusion that speaker variables might have been more influential than a writer’s network tie. Although these ties cannot be argued to be an influential factor, Sairio was able to associate certain changes in Elizabeth Montagu’s language with her transition from the Portland network to the Bluestocking network. In this respect only, the social network approach was fruitful, but as Sairio puts it: ‘language variation is controlled by a much more complex set of factors than tie strength in a social network, especially when those ties are of relatively similar strength’ (2009:319).

Sairio’s interesting study - clarified by a great deal of tables and figures - gives us an insight in Elizabeth Montagu’s life and her membership of the Portland circle and Bluestocking friends. Her detailed examination of various phenomena in the letters of the Bluestocking network is a welcome contribution to the historical sociolinguistic research of  eighteenth-century epistolary English.

Tanja Simons, Dutch Department/LUCL, University of Leiden, The Netherlands. (contact the reviewer)