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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England

Individuals in Successive Periods of Time

While in the former section informants were grouped in accordance with their age at the time of writing, this section uses their linguistic choices as the criteria for modelling diffusion. In other words, linguistic behaviour is chosen as the independent variable and age the dependent one. This approach, occasionally used in sociolinguistics (Downes 1998: 110), offers here not only a way of bypassing the problem of the undocumented years of birth but also an opportunity for a micro-level examination of ongoing changes.

In this section we shall examine the progression of three changes for a period of 100 years each, divided into five 20-year subperiods. As above, each of these 20-year periods is intended to represent contemporaneous writing. The changes include subject you versus ye, third-person singular inflection and relative pronoun which versus the which. All informants with 10 occurrences or more during each 20-year period are included, some twice or even three times, if their letters stretch over a time that crosses the period boundaries. The writers are introduced as numbers in the graphs, and the lists of names, years of birth and individual scores representing the percentage of the new form of the total of occurrences in each informant's writing are given in Appendices 5.1.-5.3. A similar approach was used in Devitt (1989: 39-46) for modelling the diffusion of changes from one genre to another.

Figure 5.2 describes the replacement of subject ye by you. The change begins with a few early adopters, but it takes only 40 years until the majority of the informants have the new form as a variant. As 5.2(d) indicates, during 1540-1559, the time of the letters of the Johnson circle, approximately one- third still used the old form ye, another third had a mixed usage, and the remaining third had begun to use you invariably or nearly so. Given this background, it may not be surprising that the younger Johnsons did not favour one and the same form of the second-person pronoun.

With time, more and more people gave up the old form altogether and readopted a grammar with one alternative only, this time the new form you. As we have seen before, this is a rapid change, running its course during the 100 years under examination.

Figure 5.3 describes the second rise of the third-person singular -s as opposed to -th. The pattern we see in the five successive graphs resembles

Adoption of subject you by individual informants 1480-1579. CEEC 1998 and Supplement

Figure 5.2. Adoption of subject you by individual informants 1480-1579. CEEC 1998 and Supplement.

Use of third-person singular -s by individual writers 1560-1659. CEEC 1998 and Supplement

Figure 5.3. Use of third-person singular -s by individual writers 1560-1659. CEEC 1998 and Supplement.

that shown in the adoption of you. Here the early adopters do not reach the 100-per-cent use as quickly as was the case with you. On the other hand, during the middle period, presented in Figure 5.3(c), the new -s form appears more popular than you in the corresponding Figure 5.2(c). The greatest difference between the shapes of the graphs of these two changes emerges in the fourth period (5.2d and 5.3d), in which early seventeenth- century informants appear to favour the new form -s to a larger extent than their countrymen and -women preferred you eighty years earlier. The last figure shows that, despite the high popularity of -s, several writers also use the older suffix -th as a minor variant.

The third change, variation between the relative pronouns which and the which, creates patterns that differ from the developments examined above (Figure 5.4.). In the fifteenth century, there was an almost dichotomous choice between the variants. From the third period onwards the situation changes, and the role of the which clearly diminishes, although during the last period we still find one person who only uses the which, namely Sabine Johnson, whom we first met in Chapter 1.

A look at the years of birth in Appendixes 5.1.-5.3. offers a new angle on the question of age. According to the apparent-time model, during each period the youngest people could be expected to lead the change. However, our informants cannot be divided into neat age groups according to their choice of linguistic variants. But a closer look reveals that several older informants favour the older variants. For instance, Richard Fox, born in 1447, only used ye in 1500-1519, and Matthew Hutton, born in 1529, preferred -th as his third-person suffix when writing in 1600-1619. Similarly, the youngest people can be found among those who had adopted the new form as their main variant. For example, those born in 1620 or later all used -s in over 90 per cent of the cases in 1640-1659, and in 1540-1559 the youngest person with a known date of birth, Princess, later Queen Elizabeth I, born in 1533, was a 100-per-cent user of you.

Still, there is no unfailing correspondence between the age of an informant and his or her choice of variant. From this we can conclude that the apparent-time hypothesis does not operate uniformly when the whole country is considered one language community. Undoubtedly, many factors other than age play a role here, which is, of course, to be expected. For example, in Appendix 5.2., periods (b) and (c), the domicile, in this case London, seems more important than age. In both periods, the most advanced users of -s are Londoners, Philip Henslowe and John Chamberlain for period (b), and Chamberlain and Robert Daborne for (c). Observations like this call for care in the interpretation of the results of the apparent-time studies in section 5.4.1.

On the other hand, the appendixes also corroborate the trends detected above. When we look at the informants about whom we have data from two or more successive periods, both change and stability stand out. For instance,

Use of relativizer waica by individual informants 1460-1559. CEEC 1998 and Supplement

Figure 5.4. Use of relativizer waica by individual informants 1460-1559. CEEC 1998 and Supplement.

Table 5.5. Proportion of informants with variable grammar

Period (a)


Period (b)


Period (c)


Period (d)


Period (e)


you vs. ye

15 (1480-99)

18 (1500-19)

61 (1520-39)

34 (1540-59)

7 (1560-79

-s vs. -th

19 (1560-79)

30 (1580-99)

60 (1600-19)

52 (1620-39)

45 (1640-59)

which vs. the which

23 (1460-79)

30 (1480-99)

33 (1500-19)

26 (1520-39)

27 (1540-59)

Appendix 5.2. contains several people who did not change their choice of the third-person singular suffix, namely Francis Hastings, Edward Bacon, Francis Wyndham, John Chamberlain, Nathaniel Bacon II, Lucy Russell, Thomas Peyton, and Brilliana Harley (in chronological order). The following people, in turn, did change their usage: Philip Gawdy, John Holles, Thomas Wentworth, Thomas Howard II, Henry Oxinden of Barham, and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.

To some degree at least, the former group supports the idea of generational change, people acquiring their variants in their childhood or youth and keeping them and their frequencies stable all their lives. The second group relates to communal change, people changing their language during their lifetimes, although the present examination does not necessarily testify to their doing it simultaneously. Our material again suggests that generational and communal change proceed hand in hand, some people following one pattern, some others the other, depending on the change.

The three figures and appendixes also allow us to compare the developments in terms of the proportion of informants with a variable grammar. Table 5.5. gives the percentages concerning the three changes. The percentages have been counted as follows: if the individual score falls between 0 and 10, or 90 and 100, the person has been considered to have an invariable grammar. This means that an occasional occurrence of the minority variant does not change the overall impression. The remaining informants are considered to have a variable grammar, using both the old and new variants in parallel.

Different profiles emerge from Table 5.5. In the case of the second-person pronoun, both the increase and decrease in the number of those who have a mixed usage are quite sharp. The third-person singular suffix has the same peak percentage in the (c) period, 60 per cent, but the development is much smoother, and even in the last period the share of people with a variable is 45 per cent. The relative pronoun, on the other hand, behaves differently, as only about one-third of the informants at any stage have a variable grammar in this change.12

Why then should the extent of the use of a variable grammar vary between the changes? One obvious explanation is linguistic embedding. As regards you versus ye, after the introduction of the change in ambiguous linguistic contexts such as optative clauses (see example (4.4) in Chapter 4), the shift from subject ye to you seems to have taken place in all linguistic contexts. The slower progression with the third-person singular finds its explanation in linguistic factors, such as the later introduction of -s after sibilants and the general process of lexical diffusion (Ogura & Wang 1996). In the sixteenth century, grammatical specialization took place in the employment of the which, which became rare except for prepositional phrases. This nevertheless supported the use of the which as a minority variant. On the other hand, the which was never a majority variant in the speech community as a whole (Raumolin-Brunberg 2000).

Other explanations for the maintenance of variable grammars can be found in social contexts. Variation according to social order, gender, dialect, register and genre, especially when elements develop into social markers, certainly supports the preservation of multi-member variables.13 It is possible for constraints like these to remain in the language for very long periods of time, as the use of ye and the -th suffix in the King James Bible indicates.

Our final point in this section deals with the relation of the apparent-time construct to the S-curve. As suggested by Chambers and Trudgill (1998: 164), Figures 5.1-5.3 can be interpreted as S-curves, although the patterns are not as smooth as the aggregate graphs in Chapter 4. What is interesting is that the shape of the middle period, the curve in (c), describing a time when the use of a variable grammar is at its highest, varies a great deal. With the second-person pronoun, the slope is gentler than with the third-person suffix. As regards the relative pronouns, half of the informants have reached the 100-per-cent level of the new form at this stage.

Moreover, a comparison of Figures 5.1-5.3 with the real-time curves shows that the middle period falls on different phases of the S-curve. Figure 1 in Appendix I, with corresponding 20-year intervals, suggests that the (c) period represents the new-and-vigorous phase (c. 30 per cent of you) for the second-person pronoun (1520-1539), while the corresponding time for third-person suffix (1600-1619) is mid-range (c. 60 per cent of -s). Which versus the which is different again, showing a practically completed state, over 90 per cent of which (Figure 4.14). Although it is difficult to interpret these findings, it may not be ill-advised to connect them with the varying interaction of constraints and the rate of change.

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