Corpus-Based Lifespan Change in Late Middle English

Juan Manuel Hernandez-Campoy


Research based on historical collections of private written correspondence has demonstrated the relevance of personal letters in reconstructing the sociolinguistic contexts of language variation and change in real social interaction as it occurred in remote periods throughout the life of the letter writers (see Nevala and Palander-Collin 2005; Dossena and Fitzmaurice 2006; Nevalainen and Tanskanen 2007; Dossena and Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2008; Sairio 2009; Dossena and Del Lungo Camiciotti 2012; van der Wal and Rutten 2013; Auer et al. 2015, inter alia). Methodologically, such archival sources can also be instrumental in the application of longitudinal approaches, facilitating the study of language variation and change within the individual and enhancing our understanding of its mechanisms and motivations. In essence, these data provide us with a privileged perspective on the historical reconstruction of inter-speaker variability where ‘real-time’ problems typical in longitudinal research, including the observer’s paradox, changes in research methods as well as the attrition of the speaker pool typical for panel datasets, are resolved.1 These data also provide an ideal testing ground for the uniformitarian hypothesis on the basis of a within-speaker design.

The aim of this chapter is to show the relevance of written correspondence from past communities in tracing sociolinguistic patterns and tendencies of language development, cross-sectionally and longitudinally, across the lifespan of individuals. To this purpose, this chapter investigates the diffusion of a new spelling practice, a change in progress, in late medieval England which resulted in what was becoming the incipient Standard English norm in orthography. In their longitudinal study on the replacement of the old runic spelling <ф> with the Latin-based

in letters written between 1425 and 1503 by four members of the Pastons, a gentry family in Norfolk (South East England), Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy (2013) found a gradual but steady adoption of the new form throughout the 15th century, revealing a typical Labovian

(1994) change-from-above. Figure 7.1, adapted from Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy (2013: 293), shows how the incoming

form spread longitudinally, following an incremental monotonic pattern, first proceeding gradually, then cumulatively and consecutively, from generation to generation, as reflected from the first letter available in 1425 to the last one in 1503.

The Paston Letters are particularly interesting for a historical study of language variation and change because they were written during the transition from Middle English to early Modern English (Bergs 2005). The research question this study seeks to address is to what extent the community-wide change towards the

innovation is reflected in the writings of individual authors across their lifespan. The current investigation employs apparent-time and real-time approaches in the observation of socially contextualised linguistic behaviours, which provide us with an opportunity to trace individual lifespan change patterns and their reflection on the local community, as well as analyse the potential impact of the critical period on the longitudinal (in)stability of individual writers. Unlike traditional macroscopic historical socio- linguistic studies which have typically been focused on the speech community as a macrocosm, this treatment of language variation and change privileges individuals as a microcosm, following the approach carried out by Palander-Collin et al. (2009), Nevalainen and Raumoling- Brunberg (2003, 2017), Hernandez-Campoy and Garda-Vidal (2018a,

Adoption of the innovative  form for 11 male Paston family members between 1425 and 1503 (adapted from Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy 2013

Figure 7.1 Adoption of the innovative

form for 11 male Paston family members between 1425 and 1503 (adapted from Conde-Silvestre and Hernandez-Campoy 2013: 293; n = 20,785).

2018b), and Evans (2013). This approach thus represents a shift from the collectivity of the speech community to the individuality of specific speakers (see also MacKenzie 2014; Buchstaller et al. 2021; Harrington and Reubold 2021; Rickford 2021; inter alia).

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