The corpus

The corpus used for the present study is part of the so-called Letters as loot- corpus compiled at Leiden University for historical-sociolinguistic research.11 The Letters as loot-corpus consists of Dutch seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private letters from a huge collection of Dutch documents, kept in The National Archives in Kew, London. These documents were confiscated by English war ships and private ships (privateers) authorized by the government to attack and seize cargo from enemy ships during frequent times of war from the second half of the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.[1] [2] Among the wide range of material, including plantation accounts, ships’ journals and lists of slaves, the collection comprises about 40,000 Dutch letters, both commercial and private. It is the 15,000 private letters, in particular, sent by people of all social ranks, men and women alike, that makes this source so interesting for historical linguists. In order to be able to explore the language of the letters, two crosssections were made: one for the seventeenth century and the other for the eighteenth century. Not all regions are equally represented in the corpora, the provinces of Holland and Zeeland prevailing due to the origin of the confiscated letters. Many crewmembers and passengers and their families lived in or close to the seaport towns along the coast. This means that the bulk of our letters stem from the western parts of the Northern Netherlands.

For the present study, a corpus of approximately 300,000 words was compiled, consisting of two subcorpora, viz. one for each period. All letters have been transcribed from the original manuscripts and digitized within the project.

All letters used are established autographs.[3] The basic figures of the corpus are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Basic data of the corpus used for the present chapter

Period

Number of letters

Number of letter writers

Number of words

Subcorpus 1

1660s/1670s

219

168

102,000

Subcorpus 2

1770s/1780s

384

292

196,500

Since the letter collection comprises private letters from various ranks of society, the corpus is fit for sociolinguistic analyses. Reconstructing the social context in order to arrive at a reliable division into social ranks is a notoriously difficult issue, in historical sociolinguistics even more so than in present-day sociolinguistics, and we therefore have to rely gratefully on the work done by social historians (cf. Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2003: 30-38; Kielkiewicz- Janowiak 2012). Following the division into social ranks used by historians of Early Modern Dutch society (Frijhoff and Spies 1999: 190-191), we distinguish between four social strata, viz. lower class (LC), lower middle class (LMC), upper middle class (UMC) and upper class (UC). This division is mainly founded upon the writers’ occupation and/or the occupation of family members. The most important exception to the division used by historians is that the highest social level, the so-called patriciate (which includes the nobility, and which is located above the UC) is not represented in our corpus. The LC comprises waged workers, mainly sailors, servants and soldiers. The LMC covers the petty bourgeoisie, including small shopkeepers, small craftsmen and minor officials. To the UMC we allocate the prosperous middle ranks (storekeepers, non-commissioned officers, well-to-do farmers), while the UC mainly comprises wealthy merchants, shipowners, academics and commissioned officers. Table 2 presents the make-up of the two subcorpora across social rank, giving both the number of letters (Nl) and the number of words (Nw).

Table 2: Social stratification of subcorpora 1 and 2

Lower

Lower Middle

Upper Middle

Upper

Nl

Nw

Nl

Nw

Nl

Nw

Nl

Nw

Subcorpus 1

10

5,500

41

22,000

145

61,000

23

13,500

Subcorpus 2

26

9,000

97

34,000

131

61,000

130

92,500

  • [1] Letters as loot (Brieven als buit) is a research project at Leiden University, funded by theNetherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and directed by Marijke van der Wal.Gijsbert Rutten is a postdoctoral researcher in the project. See www.brievenalsbuit.nl
  • [2] From 1652 till 1813, four Anglo-Dutch Wars were fought and in various other wars Englandand the Netherlands were on opposite sides.
  • [3] Corpus compilation involved research into the autograph or non-autograph status of theletters. As part of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century population was illiterate or semiliterate, we had to establish whether or not the letters were written by the senders themselves.Nobels and van der Wal (2012) explain the procedure followed in order to arrive at an autographcorpus.
 
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