Historical sociolinguistics from philology to computer science

Terttu Nevalainen - Department of Modern Languages - University of Helsinki

Historical sociolinguistics from philology to computer science

Terttu Nevalainen
Department of Modern Languages
University of Helsinki

When we started our project on Historical sociolinguistics in Helsinki some twenty years ago we thought of it as being a field of study at the cross-roads of historical linguistics and sociolinguistics with a methodological basis in corpus linguistics. It soon became clear that it was much more than that, both substantively and methodologically.
In my talk I will discuss these developments by considering some of the methodological issues that our work has addressed over the years, with emphasis on recent projects and developments. These issues include coming to terms with the historical sociolinguist’s notorious “bad-data” problem and building on the empirical research that has accumulated over the years.
Why is it worth taking all the trouble, then? The major question that we have been looking answers to is: How does language change in real time? Or more specifically: How does language change come about over time through the actions of individuals and groups of people? My talk will present some of the results that we have arrived at and suggest some directions for future work.

If you would like to meet with the speaker, please contact Stefania Degaetano-Ortlieb.

Research Interests

English language, history of English, historical sociolinguistics, variation studies, corpus compilation and methodology.

I have a long-standing interest in language change, which I find is one of the most fascinating issues in linguistic research. I am intrigued by the circumstances in which English became the kind of language it is today – in many respects quite unlike modern German, for example, although these languages are closely related historically.

Most of my work is basic research and has methodological, empirical and theoretical objectives. But I also contribute to textbooks and reference works by writing general introductions to my field of research and research findings. A few years ago I was invited to write a textbook on Early Modern English, a historical variety of English that I have always had a particular affinity with, not least because it was the language of Shakespeare.

Methodologically, my work comes under the umbrella of corpus linguistics. The electronic corpora of personal correspondence compiled and annotated by the CEEC team that I have been working with for well over a decade enable advanced research on English historical sociolinguistics over four centuries from 1400 to 1800. We have now joined efforts with colleagues in England and Germany to supplement the corpus and extend it into the beginning of the 20th century.

In order to be able to make better use of the data sources available to corpus linguistics, I collaborate with data-mining specialists and visualization experts. In the DAMMOC project, we produced tools and techniques for the study of language variation and change which apply to language corpora in general, both historical and modern.

The empirical work I carry out contributes to sociolinguistic fact-finding by providing baseline information on how the English language has changed in various social contexts over the last six hundred years. This work also contributes to sociolinguistic theory formation, and to the modelling of processes of long-term language change.

A question of general theoretical interest is the manifestation of social evaluation in a language such as English. By comparing linguistic processes of different kinds over time, we will be able to assess the extent to which they pattern socially in the language community, and be in a better position to judge what may count as sociolinguistic “facts” in English as opposed to other, typologically different languages. Here the past can help us understand the present.

I have just embarked on a new Academy-funded project, Reassessing Language Change: The Challenge of Real Time, with Tanja Säily and Turo Vartiainen. One of our aims is to make past work on language change more accessible and cumulative. For this purpose, the project will set up a new open-access resource, Language Change Database, to serve as a basis for studies ranging from comparative sociolinguistic typologies to statistical modelling and replication with other data sets.

My other academic commitments include participation in professional organizations and editorial work. I am currently the editor-in-chief of the monograph series Oxford Studies in the History of English and co-edit the new Benjamins series Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics with Marijke van der Wal. I continue as a member of the international editorial advisory boards of AngliaEnglish Language and LinguisticsInternational Journal of English StudiesJournal of Historical PragmaticsMiscelanéaNOWELE, and Studia Anglica Poznaniensia. I also edit the VARIENG eSeriesStudies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English.