Modern Geolinguistic Tenets and the Diffusion of Linguistic Innovations in Late Middle English

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ABSTRACT

In this paper we intend to reconstruct some of the geographical aspects that may have contributed to the diffusion of linguistic innovations from London to the rest of the country in the late Middle English period. We accept the geolinguistic tenet that interpersonal communicative contacts between potential adopters are basic in the diffusion of linguistic innovations and that these are (and possibly were) remarkably facilitated in urban centres. Particularly three factors are of paramount importance in the study of the spatial diffusion of linguistic innovations: a) the population density of the areas involved and its distribution; b) the physical distance between them; and c) the distance or similarity of the linguistic systems peculiar to each area. We believe that the demographic evidence afforded by the Poll tax returns of the 14th century, combined with the specific analysis of geographical communications in late medieval England, may allow us to establish a hypothetical 'gravity model', in the geolinguistic sense, and to speculate on the interurban courses followed by linguistic innovations from London throughout the rest of the country.

1. Introduction: Standardisation and geography

Recent approaches to the subject of standardisation tend to question the assumption that a single ancestor underlies the development of standard English. Instead, it is widely acknowledged, in accordance with variationist methodology, that the process comprises the "selection" and "acceptance" or "diffusion" of features from a range of social and regional varieties -- including those which, according to Samuels (1963, 1972: 165-170), were promoted to the status of incipient standard norms at different localities from the late thirteenth century. As a result, the standardisation of English is no longer seen as a "linear, unidirectional development", but as "a set of processes which occur in a set of social spaces, developing at different rates in different registers, in different idiolects..." (Wright 2000: 6; see also: Wright 1996; Hope 2000: 51). As regards the "acceptance" or "diffusion" of historical standard norms, the conclusions of recent sociolinguistic studies on the spread of linguistic innovations o ver the social space have proved to be quite useful. In this way, several studies have correlated graphemic, morphological and syntactic characteristics of late Middle and early Modem standard Englishes with the reconstructed pyramid of social ranks and networks in these periods. This process has been related to mobile individuals from the middle echelons of society who could have established loose-knit networks in largely populated towns, like London and Calais (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 1996; Rissanen 2000; Conde Silvestre and Hernandez Campoy, fc.). Concerning the spatial diffusion of incipient standard variants, the proposals of human geography and geolinguistics may also be considered in connection with historical stages of language development. As Britain has stated "[t]he analysis of spatiality is critically important if we wish to fully understand the processes involved in the diffusion of linguistic innovations" (1991: 25 1-252), and this tenet, in our opinion, should hold for both present and past states.

Parallels between the historical conditions in medieval and early renaissance Europe and those of modern underdeveloped countries are often drawn. This procedure is sometimes adopted in historical geography, which may underestimate the demographic and functional roles of urban nuclei in earlier periods, in view of the existence of demographic distances between a limited number of relatively large concentrations of people and a scattered, more or less even, distribution of population in the country. If this is so, the process of "epidemic" or "contagion" diffusion, traditionally represented by the wave model, may have been more widespread in earlier times than nowadays, so that linguistic innovations in late Middle English or early Modem English would have radiated from a focal area and reached physically nearby locations before those at greater distances. …

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