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Generic and Temporal Concerns

Textual Variation and Historical Sociolinguistics

Unlike present-day sociolinguists who analyse one genre, spoken conversation, possibly supplemented by reading assignments, historical sociolinguists need to collect their data from the written texts that have come down to us.3 These texts represent different genres, which are known to have changed over time. In all diachronic research textual continuity needs attention, and a great deal of research has been done in this area (e.g. Moessner ed. 2001; Diller & Gorlach eds. 2001). It is worth mentioning that most of the 14 changes that are under scrutiny in this book have been studied previously within the framework of textual variation.4

The variationist approach is based on the observation that genres differ in many ways, for instance, in their conventions, level of formality and type of setting. One of the aims of historical sociolinguistics has been to find texts that mirror the informal spoken language of past times as closely as possible. This is not to say that we would question the validity of historical data in their own right (e.g. Romaine 1988: 1454), but our objective is motivated by the assumption that most linguistic changes take place in informal spoken language and spread later to the more formal varieties, representing in Labovian terms (Labov 1994: 78) change from below as opposed to change from above.

It has become a commonplace among textual historians not to accept a rigid division between the two modes of expression, written and spoken, but to work with a continuum of strategies, 'oral' and 'literate' constituting the end points. Some spoken genres, such as sermons, have been shown to resort to literate strategies, while some written genres, for example, personal letters, are found to be close to the oral end of the continuum. As expected, most linguistic innovations studied in the variation framework have first appeared in the oral genres.

This line of thought was elaborated by Biber (1988), who, with a factor analysis of the co-occurrence of specific linguistic features, showed that spoken and written genres could be placed in different textual dimensions.5 So, for instance, in Biber's Dimension 1, 'Involved versus Informational Production' (1988: 128), personal letters occupy the same position as interviews towards the involved end of the scale and, similarly, professional letters and broadcasts the same place around the middle of the continuum. The dimension approach has also been applied to historical data (Biber & Finegan 1989, 1992, 1997; Biber 2001), resulting in interesting observations on the evolution of various genres from the seventeenth century onwards.

The present study differs from the mainstream variationist framework in the sense that, instead of focusing on textual variation in history, the language of individual informants is taken up for analysis. This makes our approach similar to present-day sociolinguistics. What also resembles contemporary sociolinguistics is the choice of only one genre, in our case personal correspondence, as the object of study. This choice provides commensurability of data, as far as that is possible, for a period spanning 270 years.

Furthermore, the suitability of personal correspondence for sociolinguistic analysis becomes obvious if one believes, as we do, that Biber's characterization of personal correspondence as one of the most oral written genres not only holds for Present-day English but also for past varieties. From the social point of view, personal correspondence stands out as first-class primary data. Thanks to the editors of letter collections and social and cultural historians, it is possible to identify individual letter writers, trace their social backgrounds, personal histories and relationships to the recipients of letters, in other words, the information without which sociolinguistic analyses and interpretations could not be made.

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