Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Review of:

Sokoll, Thomas (ed.). 2001. Essex Pauper Letters 1731-1837. Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 30. Published for The British Academy by Oxford University Press. xli + 727 pages.

(Published 2003. HSL/SHL 3)

The volume contains 758 edited letters sent by men and women of the lowest social stratum – the very people whose language historical sociolinguists have so much wanted to study but only rarely succeeded in having access to. Pauper letters’ were letters written by, or on behalf of, people who had moved away from their own parishes, from which they could seek poor relief according to the Old Poor Law. This collection – the first of its kind – comes from Essex, but similar data can be found elsewhere in Britain, as Tony Fairman has shown (e.g. 2002).1 Although the time-span is given as 1731–1837, the majority of the material stems from the nineteenth century, and only thirteen letters predate 1800.

Beside the edited letters, the book contains an introduction, editorial guide, list of sources, bibliography and three indexes (persons, places and subjects). The introduction is divided into five chapters. ‘Pauper letters as a historical source’ discusses the value of these letters for research in social history, historical reconstruction and the study of literacy. The second chapter, ‘Institutional context: the practice of non-resident relief’, describes the system of non-resident relief in the Old Poor Law, in force up to 1834. Under this law all parishes were required to relieve their poor. In most cases those who had moved away from their own parishes could be sent back if they could not support themselves. Instead of moving people, parishes often gave these people relief in their new domiciles, which led to a need to apply for relief in writing, and some of these applications, known as pauper letters, have been preserved among parish records.

The third chapter, ‘The sample of Essex Pauper Letters 1731–1837’, offers the chronological and regional distribution of the letters by parish of receipt and place of sender. The majority of the letters come from the archives of eleven parishes in Essex, the main sources being Colchester with three parishes, Chelmsford, and Braintree. About one-third of the letters were sent from within Essex, another third from London, mostly the East End, ca. 15% from neighbouring East Anglia, and the rest from various parts of England, a few even from overseas.

The fourth chapter on source criticism not only introduces the particular characteristics of the letters but also illustrates them with a sample of originals in twenty plates. Sokoll’s systematic assessment of the letters includes issues such as physical properties, layout, writing, place of sender, date, salutation, valedictions, name of sender, composition and style. Furthermore, the editor discusses letter-writing as a social practice and the historical credibility of his data. In this context he makes it quite clear that in most cases it is impossible to know or find out who did the actual writing. It can, however, be assumed that even poor people at this time were literate enough to write their own letters or at least to have a relative or neighbour to write letters for them. Judging by the spelling, many of the writers did not have much experience in putting pen to paper.

Chapter five, ‘Textual criticism and editorial documentation’, gives a good picture of the editorial principles and historical documentation adopted in the collection. The most important principle is as follows (p. 72): ‘The actual writing in terms of spelling and punctuation, however, has been retained in the present edition, including all idiosyncracies of lettering, slips of the pen and phonetic spellings.’ A separate section called ‘Editorial Guide’ is a useful practical guide for the readers of the letters. After my experience as one of the compilers of a 2.7-million word corpus of letters, the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (c. 1410–1681), I can only say that Sokoll’s clarity in stating the editorial principles is to be applauded. Some older editions, especially those compilated by historians for historians, have unfortunately not maintained the level of accuracy that linguists require and have had to be discarded for this reason. By contrast, the volume at hand is very useful, not only for historians but for linguists as well.

The letters have been arranged by place of receipt. Three additional lists provide alternative access to the material by ordering the letters by sender, place of sender and date. The letters themselves offer a rather dismal picture of everyday life, depicting repeated misfortunes such as illness, death, unemployment and simple lack of money to make ends meet. The apparatus attached to each letter not only presents textual facts, such as alterations and circumtexts, but also informs the reader about related correspondence and further documentary evidence. In this way we occasionally come to know what the decision of the parish authorities was in relation to the letter in question.

Although Sokoll’s collection is unique in the sense that it only contains letters by the lowest social stratum, his assumption that the genuine language of the lower orders would have been entirely beyond reach in earlier writing is not quite true. As our research into the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg, 2003) shows, it has been possible to find some letters by people below the middle ranks from the fifteenth century onwards. These letters are not many, but they have provided at least a glimpse into the language of the lower ranks. I would also like to argue that Sokoll’s comment on p. 60 that ‘the history of letter writing in England ... has so far been concerned with epistolary notables like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu or Horace Walpole’ hardly does justice to the energy that has recently been directed to the study of letters and letter writing in literary studies, gender research, pragmatics, genre and text studies and historical linguistics in general.

Perhaps it is the case that Sokoll, like so many historians before him, has not come to think of his data as a resource for linguistic research, since in the introduction he only speaks about pauper letters as of value for research on the history of the English poor law, the labouring classes and literacy. As linguists we know better. Specific research issues that immediately come to mind include letter conventions, formulation of requests and local dialect. For a historical sociolinguist, however, first and foremost the letters extend the social spectrum from which authentic language is available. In this way, it becomes easier to trace changes that emanate ‘from below’, a concept useful not only in sociolinguistics but also social history, as Sokoll shows. But before all this can be carried out, at least a sample of the letters needs to be put into an electronic format. We hope to see them included in the corpus of pauper letters which is being compiled by Mikko Laitinen at the University of Helsinki.

Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, University of Helsinki (contact the reviewer)


Fairman, Tony. 2002. riting these fu lines: English overseers’ correspondence, 1800–1835. Verslagen en Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde, 3: 557–573.

Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. 2003. Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. Longman Linguistics Library. London: Longman.

1. I would like to thank Mikko Laitinen for drawing my attention to Fairman’s studies.