Workshop Bristol Aug 2008

Listed below are abstracts from exploratory papers presented at this workshop. These are initial thoughts and not publication and should not be cited. For further information, contact the author or the workshop organiser (


Derek Offord, Bristol: The history of the French language in Russia

Susan Fitzmaurice, Sheffield: Historians, linguists, history and language: the challenge of investigating linguistic politeness in 18th-century England

Patrick Honeybone, Edinburgh, Workshop on history and historical linguistics

Stephen Milner, University of Manchester, Renaissance Humanism , Philology, and the Classical Tradition: A  Sociolinguistic Reading

Mari C. Jones, University of Cambridge, French sociolinguistics

Joseph Salmons, UW Madison, Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity

Tomasek Kamusella, TC Dublin, (abstract on request)

Thomas Sokoll, FU Hagen, (abstract on request)

Robert Evans, Oxford (abstract on request)



 Derek Offord, Bristol:

The history of the French language in Russia

  • The impact of French (c. 1750-1850) on the development of the Russian literary language: positive impact (lexical, syntactic, stylistic, conceptual) and negative impact (i.e. the currency of French encouraged the aspiration to be linguistically independent).
  • The social implications of bilingualism: did the use of French perpetuate social division and backwardness?
  • The use of French in Russia, and the influence of French culture there, deeply affected Russians’ thinking about their nation’s relationship to Europe and therefore helped to shape their ideas about their national identity.
  • Bilingualism and biculturalism had existential implications in Russia: what were the consequences of trying to view the world simultaneously through two different lenses?
  • To what extent have other nations shared the Russian experience of bilingualism?


Susan Fitzmaurice, Sheffield

Historians, linguists, history and language: the challenge of investigating linguistic politeness in 18th-century England

 Politeness in the eighteenth century means different things to linguists and historians:

Highly contextually conditioned, historically specific set of meanings:

  • historians’ concerns with politeness as sociability: a mode of social coordination
  • literary historians’ interest in the periodical essay genre as a discursive medium for the development of sociability
  • historical sociolinguistics—politeness as an identifiable set of attributes that are commercialized and commodified via the identification of good grammar as the way to polite conversation; the operationalisation of politeness through the medium of humiliative discourse

For linguists, linguistic politeness

         involves face-work in social interaction (after Brown & Levinson 1987)

         is marked behaviour, beyond what is perceived to be appropriate to ongoing social interaction (Watts 2003)

The consequences of different understandings of ‘politeness’: historians and linguists research politeness in the 18th century in different ways. E.g. medieval historians might research curteisie in different ways from linguistic historians, but historical sociolinguists are likely to research this notion much like they research eighteenth-century politeness (cf. Helsinki school). (Discuss)


Common problems for linguists working on historical periods:

  • inadequate knowledge about historical and cultural context (e.g. history of ideas, political movements, socio-economic conditions, literary and cultural trends).
  • lack of familiarity with actual texts in a period and
  • failure to read properly the textual context in which linguistic patterns appear.

 Sample challenges that historical sociolinguists are ill-equipped to meet without appropriate historical knowledge (or collaboration with historians)—

  • the connections between historical developments in the use of third person pronouns to refer to oneself in place of the first person and the development of the notion of personal identity (from Descartes to Locke, for example)
  • the ways in which politeness applies to culture, language and behaviour change in the eighteenth century and what are the consequences for standardizing language;


Topics for discussion—think through implications for the disciplines and their interstices:

  • analyzing language—are historians more ‘surfacy’ than linguists?
  • data—are linguists more restrictive in classifying data as relevant historical evidence than historians are?
  • theory and interpretation—are historical sociolinguistics approaches sufficiently historically informed?
  • context—can historical sociolinguists be sufficiently equipped with the necessary historical knowledge to conduct linguistic studies of historical periods?


Patrick Honeybone (University of Edinburgh)

Workshop on history and historical linguistics, Universityof Bristol

My basic simple assumptions are:

(i) linguistics studies languages, and (ii) history studies people. These things are not unconnected, of course: (iii) languages live in people, and (iv) much historical evidence comes from records that people wrote using their languages.

My five summary bullet points are:

1.      There are some aspects of language change where the study of general history is irrelevant. Endogenous changes, arising from within linguistic systems themselves are not tied to the sociohistorical context of the people who innovate them.

2.      There are some aspects of language change which can only be explained if we understand the context of the people who spoke the languages that changed. Exogenous changes, due to various types of contact been speakers of different linguistic systems, need general history to explain the lives of the speakers involved.

3.      New Dialect Formation, thanks to speakers of ‘old dialects’ mixing in areas where no established dialect exists, can only be understood if we know the demographics of the speakers, requiring substantial collaboration between linguists and historians.

4.      As languages change, so the documents written in earlier stages of languages become uninterpretable. History needs historical linguistics to understand what was really meant in the records that it works with.

5.      Historical reconstructive linguistics can help to fill in the blanks in our understanding of the (pre)history of peoples. Even where no records exist, we can still reconstruct languages and language splits with some degree of certainty. Such evidence can help us understand the people and population splits involved.

It is not clear to me that vast amounts of new work is needed for (2). More work is certainly needed for (3). It may be that more work is needed for (4).


Stephen Milner, University of Manchester

Renaissance Humanism , Philology, and the Classical Tradition: A  Sociolinguistic Reading

 1] How does the emergence of lay vernacular culture in Italy relate to  the understanding of humanism as the recovery of classical literary forms?

2] Linguistically, what was the relationship between Latin and the  early vernaculars?

3] Sociologically, why were classical texts required in the vernacular  and how were they transmitted?

4] What does the study of this process tells us about the  interrelation within exisiting disciplinary and historiographical traditions of history, linguistics  and philology?

5] What do these considerations tells us about the geneaology of the  humanities within the western (classical) tradition?


Mari C. Jones, University of Cambridge

French sociolinguistics (key points)

 1. The French language offers a particularly fertile territory for sociolinguistic research, both synchronic and diachronic but the study of language in France has very much been coloured by the linguistic history of France in the early modern period, which reveals the imposition of two separate, though related phenomena, namely ‘the ideology of the standard’ and ‘linguistic standardization’. The former refers to the formation in society of ‘definite ideas about what is “correct” in language use and the second represents the way in which variants that the ideology considers ‘incorrect’ may be eliminated from actual usage, leaving a single, ‘correct’ form.

2. France emerged into the modern period with a very strong normative linguistic tradition and an apparent idée fixe that any form of French other than le bon usage was unworthy of serious consideration. Such an ideology seems to have inhibited the elaboration of Labovian-style variationist studies of French within the Hexagon

3. It is the study of diatopic, rather than diastratic, variation which first became established within the French context and the concept of linguistic regionalism has therefore been a familiar one in France for over a century. But during much of the twentieth century, it tended to be studied within a largely descriptive rather than analytical framework.

4. Despite the seemingly ideologically rooted reluctance to take formal linguistic description beyond a narrow, normative – often written - version of the Hexagonal variety, sociolinguistic variation has frequently enjoyed a high degree of salience within the French speech community (metalinguistic commentary from the 16th century onwards).

5. In terms of academic study it is notable that Labovian-style covariationist methodology has not been embraced with as much enthusiasm in France, though it has had considerably more impact in francophone Canada.  A concern with studying linguistic varieties based on interaction rather than on abstraction has been prevalent in the specifically French sociolinguistic framework known as ‘l’imaginaire linguistique’

6.  Another significant way in which the study of French sociolinguistics may be distinguished from that of, for example, English, is that corpora of the French spoken in France were generally compiled much later than not only those of English but also those of other European languages such as German or Italian.


Joseph Salmons, UW Madison


Nils Langer (email, 18 July):

the whole idea of this workshop is to think aloud about what the actual differences and communalities between the disciplines of historical (socio)linguistics and social history are. We thus don't expect traditional research papers but rather some reflections on what potential common grounds there are for an exchange of ideas between the two disciplines.

 Bullet points:

Some whole fields are ‘mismatched’ in disciplinary terms. For example, ‘language shift’ has precious little to do with what most linguists are trained to do, and much more with real social history, historical geography and sociology, etc. That is, they really aren’t suited to work just by linguists. An ideal team for approaching language shift should consist of a team of social scientists with a linguist on it, not a team of linguists talking occasionally to historians and others.

We shouldn’t go out and self-train in another discipline to work across disciplinary boundaries. Instead, we need teams of researchers including the relevant range of specialists. In Wisconsin, we’re starting to build a team of historians, linguists and (we hope eventually) sociologists to look at Social Network Analysis. We’re talking about projects in all disciplines, including language shift and language change.

The most productive core exchanges I’ve had with historians (and other people in historical sciences) haven’t been on theoretical or general topics, but rather in sitting down together and working through particular piles of data together. That’s where the I’ve seen progress on the goals Nils lays out (see above).