Rooted in the fields of historical sociolinguistics and the history of the English language, the project aims at gaining a better understanding of the role of social stratification in real-time linguistic change and at complementing the ‘traditional’ history of written English during its late codification and early prescription stages, particularly the period c. 1780–1840. The long-prevailing ‘traditional’ view has been concerned with the description of language variation and change in print and the role that the educated elite played in the standardisation process. Newly available manuscript sources by the labouring poor, i.e. pauper petitions written under the Old Poor Law, can however now provide a new and complementary perspective on the existing language history by focusing on the majority group in society. Importantly, the data from the lower social orders allow for the investigation of the role of social stratification in linguistic variation and change through the comparison of language use across different social layers. To this end, a collection of c. 2050 pauper petition letters from the period c. 1795–1834 (The Old Poor Law) will be converted into a searchable corpus that will serve as the basis for new linguistic investigations. The main aim of the project (Q1) is to determine the role of the social stratification variable in language variation and change in the period c. 1795–1834 (theoretical level). To answer this question, the systematic investigation of lower-order language (morpho-syntax, orthography, phonological reflections in spelling) and a comparison to language use across the social strata (in letters written by the elite and middling sort) is required (descriptive level).
This research is divided into two complementary sub-projects that are carried out by a senior postdoctoral researcher and a PhD student:
Q2 (Senior postdoc): How does the language found in the pauper petitions compare to reflections of lower-class language (spoken and written) in contemporary literature and depositions, as well as metalinguistic comments found in pronunciation grammars and other contemporary manuals?
Q3 (PhD): To what extent and in what ways does ‘lower-class language’ differ from contemporary language use by grammatically educated members of society? In what ways are the different education possibilities (literacy levels; different linguistic repertoires) reflected in the pauper petition corpus?
The project outcome will be a PhD thesis, a number of international peer-reviewed articles, a special journal issue, and conference proceedings. In addition, the pauper petition corpus (plain text and xml format (philologically accurate), including optional spelling normalisation, the addition of meta-linguistic information, and a user-friendly search interface) will be made available to the academic community, including not only linguists, but also (cultural) historians and other related disciplines.
Link to Project Website