The History of English in a Social Context: A Contribution to Historical Sociolinguistics

The History of English in a Social Context: A Contribution to Historical Sociolinguistics

The History of English in a Social Context: A Contribution to Historical Sociolinguistics

The History of English in a Social Context: A Contribution to Historical Sociolinguistics

Synopsis

One of the most important factors in language change is synchronic variation due to social differences including gender-specific language use. The papers in the present volume all address this topic in connection with the history of English. They range from Chaucer's and Shakespeare's forms of address to questions of political correctness today; they also include the discussion of attitudes to regional variation and of the influence of social variation on syntax and phonology as well as the role of standardization in a social context.

Excerpt

Dieter Kastovsky and Arthur Mettinger

Since the work of Labov in the sixties and seventies (cf. Labov 1966, 1972a, 1972b), it has been generally accepted that linguistic change is inextricably connected with synchronic variation, variation which involves space (diatopic variation), social strata, gender (diastratic variation), text type and type of discourse as well as subject matter (diaphasic variation) , and possibly a number of additional factors. The tools of modern sociolinguistics, whose objective is the study of these variations, involve primarily quantitative, i.e. statistical analyses of large amounts of data, which are the basis for further, qualitative assessments relating to the direction of the change in question as it is reflected by the variation observed. These methods were developed in connection with investigations of the contemporary language, where data were much more readily available than for historical periods of a language. In this way it became possible to plot the progress of an ongoing change (such as the spread of rhoticity in New York, or the propagation of various vowel shifts in the U.S.) through the various strata of a speech community on the basis of directly observable data, which were usually gathered through elicitation (unfortunately involving what came to be called the “observer’s paradox”, cf. Tieken-Boon van Ostade’s paper in this volume). It was only with the advent of machine-readable historical corpora such as the Diachronic part of the Helsinki Corpus of English texts in the eighties and the numerous other historical corpora, which have been compiled since then, that systematic studies in historical sociolinguistics could be undertaken along the same lines. As the references in the articles contained in this volume show, it was – and still is – the group of scholars working with Matti Rissanen in Helsinki, who provided the groundwork for this new . . .

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