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Review of Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics
Date: Tue, 9 Aug 2005 13:45:52 +0300 From: Margaret Sonmez Subject: Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics: Studies ... in the Paston Letters
AUTHOR: Bergs, Alexander TITLE: Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics. SUBTITLE: Studies in Morphosyntactic Variation in the Paston Letters (1421- 1503) SERIES: Topics in English Linguistics, 51 PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter YEAR: 2005
Margaret J-M Sonmez, Department of Foreign Language Education, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey
This book is intended for scholars of language variation and change and most particularly those who are interested in the growing field of historical sociolinguistics (or socio-historical linguistics). The study focuses on three late Middle English variables: personal pronouns, relativizers, and light verbs (complex predicates). At the same time, the methodological issues involved in the analysis of historical data are discussed at some length, and the discussions are not limited to a purely network-theory approach. Any researcher interested in these variables should read this book, because they are discussed from a wide variety of theoretical and analytical perspectives and, importantly, discrepancies between the results of this work and the results obtained from these earlier studies should now be taken into account. In addition, the methodological and theoretical contexts of the analyses are put together in what might almost be called a hidden agenda of the book, which seems to be an effort to question our techniques and refine our understanding of the processes involved in language change, as revealed by the emphasis in twice presenting a model of language change, illustrated on pages 42 and 256. Those interested in the theory and techniques of historical sociolinguistic analysis can also, then, benefit from this work. It should be added that this is a very readable book, the author's deep interest in his subject is infectious and one enjoys accompanying his thoughts as they light on many different linguistic and theoretical issues.
A brief summary of the chapters follows, before comments and critical evaluation.
Bergs clearly sets out his aims and concerns in the short Introduction: the Paston letters were chosen for this study of language change because of the particularly interesting period in which they were written; personal pronouns, relativizers and light verb constructions were chosen as the linguistic variables because all were in transitional phases at that time and there are unresolved issues in our understanding of each of these changes; and network theory was chosen as a tool for analysis because the nature of the source materials (letters from family members) and the subjects of enquiry (which include how change spreads within a speech community, and the role of the individual in change) are amenable to this sort of analysis.
Chapters 2 and 3 discuss Historical Sociolinguistics and Social Network Analysis, respectively. After a wide-ranging survey of issues concerning the relationships between linguistics, history and the other social sciences, some of the main issues underlying the study of historical sociolinguistics are discussed. These range from issues concerning the reconstruction of the language and meanings of long-dead speakers out of written records, to style, register and grammaticalisation. Bergs lays the foundations for a study that will ask more and different questions from those encountered in case-studies that confine themselves to a limited set of hypotheses related to narrowly selected correlation patterns and their quantitative interpretations. Rather, it seems that he wishes to use his own case studies (the analyses of the forthcoming chapters) to question and illuminate a large number of methodological (in the broadest sense) issues.
The introduction to Chapter 3 (Social Network Analysis -- present and past) summarizes the contents of the chapter better than any paraphrase could do: "the ideas, principles, and methods underlying and constituting social network analysis [are] described and discussed [and] the implications of social network analysis for language variation and language change [are] addressed. This [is] followed by a historical sketch that [...] highlights on [sic] historical network analysis with regard to social and linguistic theory. In particular, problems inherent in data structure and acquisition [are] discussed. In the final sections, an attempt [is] made at developing some general principles and techniques for social network analysis in (late) Medieval England, and at analyzing the networks of the Paston family with such instruments. This chapter concludes with a detailed description of the linguistic material that was used." (22).
The following three chapters, 4, 5, and 6, deal separately with the descriptions and analyses of the selected linguistic variables. Each chapter provides a condensed history of the variable under investigation and a review of its literature. Not only this, however, but the discussions are extended into other areas of linguistic enquiry, with links drawn between, and questions asked about, what has already been found, what remains to be discovered, and how these existing and future findings may fit into theories of language from Generative Grammar to Cognitive Linguistics. Beyond this, however, generalizations cannot be made because, as a major tenet of the volume borne out in practice, each variable requires and is given attention to different developmental and usage factors. Thus, for instance, while all three analyses pay attention to the social variable gender, for the personal pronouns the roles of dialect and linguistic analogy are discussed, while these latter have no place in the analyses of the following two variables; and again, while the relationship between the author and the addressee is considered in analyses of personal pronouns and relativizers, it is not a part of the analysis of the LVCs.
A few selected examples of findings, both positive and negative, from these chapters follow: in Chapter 4 it is, interestingly, discovered that the marking of thou/you alternants for social relations has not entered the written language of these people; at the same time no 'communal patterns in pronoun usage' are found (127). In Chapter 5 the postulated differential treatment of restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses is supported by the material, and animacy of the antecedent is shown already to be important in non-restrictive clauses, but the relative frequencies of 'which' and 'the which' are contrary to those posited by Mustanoja (cited on page164) and found in the Helsinki Corpus (165). Finally, in Chapter 6 a hierarchy of (increasing) markedness for light verbs is identified as GIVE > HAVE > TAKE > DO > MAKE (232). Contrary to the expectations of earlier studies, no linear increase in the frequency of light verbs is found in the corpus, instead it is found that for one of the three generations studied (within the years 1451-1475) 'the more often speakers used light verb constructions, the fewer different types of light verb constructions (i.e. different nouns) they used, and vice versa' (237).
With very many subjects broached in the individual analytic chapters, the Conclusion (Chapter 7) has many strands to tie up; it can not merely recap a previous hypothesis and point to satisfactory results, because the study asked many open questions and the results of many of the analyses were negative. That is, important questions concerning issues such as the role of marking and saliency in the spread of change, the extent to which choice of variable is conscious, and the extent to which the individual language users are involved in language change, with all their theoretical and methodological repercussions, run through the book and cannot be simply concluded. Further, in spite of Berg's optimistic expectations for this sort of analytic approach to late Modern English as expressed in the conclusion to his earlier work on such material (2000, 251), it was found that Social Network analysis of this corpus did not offer clear and illuminating answers to all of the questions, but presented, rather, a mixed bag of results that can not be presented simply and as a whole.
This is not to say that the work is inconclusive, however. Many valuable results have come out of the study and most of them are mentioned in this last chapter. One, for instance, is the fact that different linguistic variables were shown (as predicted in the introduction) to require different methods of analysis and interpretation. Another is the fact that there is a qualitative difference between the usages of a first generation user of a certain form, that is in some way breaking new ground, and the following generations who, while they may show a statistically smooth incrementation of usage, are nevertheless involved in quite a different sort of choice of forms, there being by now an existing repertoire for them to pick from. (245). This, by the way, fits in with another preoccupation of Bergs, that of the roles of saliency and markedness in the individual's choice of variable form. There is also the role of age grading in language variation and change, and the concomitant question of how to account for this methodologically. Indeed, the whole issue of change on the individual level -- changing social and personal circumstances, changing network ties, changing language usage -- is shown to be a major obstacle to effective social network analysis of historical material that spans a 'movie shot' rather than a 'snap shot' of time (260).
I suspect that a comment Bergs makes (54-55) concerning the differing roles of networks in changes where there is an accepted standard variety and in changes where there is no such a thing may be a more powerful explanation than he credits for his material's lack of overall correlation between network strength scores and form frequencies. For although network analyses are not reliant on the fairly rigid class models that stratificational studies use, it is possible that the nature of many of the ties selected for scoring is in fact geared towards correlations between individuals' social positions and (linguistic) behaviour that can be placed on some sort of normative or even prestige scale. For while power relations and education, to choose but two, may relate in a particular society and time to a greater diversification of social ties, they are also directly related to position vis-à-vis the standard or prestige usage where such a thing exists. But not all language variables have this sort of social meaning or indeed this sort of hierarchical relationship between their different forms. This does not mean one has to reintroduce that questionable concept-of-convenience the 'free variable', it means only that what a variable correlates with does not have to be a crudely socially evaluative factor. As Bergs may be lightly touching upon (20) and Singh (1996a, 8) certainly insists upon more firmly, it could be a matter of any sort of meaning in the broader sense. The failure of the particular coordinates chosen in Bergs's Network Strength Scale to show a meaningful pattern may indicate that, contrary to what he reported early on in the book, it is not a case of 'for the sociolinguist ... any kind of variation will do' (18). Not only the social situation but also the linguistic situation (lack of a recognised standard in this case) must be matched by adjustments to the analytic toolbox (here the selection of scored elements).
An outstanding feature of this volume is the many parameters of investigation (individual, group, network strength scales, 3 groups of linguistic variables, three generations of writers, intra- and extra- linguistic factors) that it accepts. This leads to a very dense piece of research. Bergs' admirably lucid and at times conversational style and his frequent summaries are therefore necessary and particularly welcome. The decisions he has had to make concerning descriptive background and analytic technique are clearly set out and well justified, although more dialectal information about relativizers and light verb constructions would be welcomed by this reader, and I could not understand how a stay of more than (just) one week can be considered long enough to be a criterion for a 'place of living' that in its turn effects the potential number of ties a person has (73); I wonder if this is a misprint.
The writer has looked at his materials in an unusual amount of detail, and the relating of his readings and his own findings to a variety of different linguistic theories is a great strength. While no work can provide a definitive list of elements needed for another person's research, the total of linguistic factors considered in these chapters would certainly make a useful check-list for anyone wishing to contextualise their interpretation of similar language variables. To give an example, when investigating the possible reasons and mechanisms of change from h- to th- plural personal pronouns, Bergs considers (among other things) both therapeutic and prophylactic reasons for change (92- 93), Pike's 'formatives' (98) and thence the cognitive abstractions of the Wickelphone and its descendent the Wickelfeature (98-100). It is a pleasure to see all these different perspectives being made to work together towards a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of language change.
Undoubtedly Bergs is concerned with, indeed at times almost haunted by, the seemingly unresolvable gap between the individual and the social or communal as it effects studies of language variation and change and, indeed, all social sciences. In each chapter there is a reasoned movement between community and individual, with correlations between language usage and generation, or network strength scale being only a part of the analyses used, and then only for particular subsections of the analyses. Some individuals showed very clear patterns of linguistic behaviour that could convincingly be explained in terms of their own biographies or positions within the network (notably Margaret Paston [traditional usage] Elizabeth innovative [social climber] and the elder John of the third generation of Pastons), but this was not usually the case for the Paston family network as a whole, even within the analyses of single variables. When the results of the three variables were viewed together with the individuals' network strength scales, 'no uniform correlation pattern' could be found (254).
Romaine has analysed the individualist vs. collectivist problem succinctly as one of two distinct levels of abstraction (1996, 100), and in practical terms, methodological decisions respecting this distinction, especially concerning the technique of analysis in accordance with aims of the investigation, have provided a way out of the dilemma. The cost is, naturally enough, that any set of results is only illuminating relative to its theoretical and methodological origins. It is argued in this book that large-scale corpus studies 'often lead to misconstrued images of actual language use in individual speakers' (6), and although anyone who has read Labov's Philadelphia work will agree that not all huge projects ignore the individual speaker and his or her importance in language change, it is generally true that a widely based corpus accounts for neither the full effects of the change upon the individual user nor the individual's full effects upon the change; and while a network study of a small group or coterie, such as Fitzmaurice's or Tieken's work on 18th century groups, can show the sociolinguistic relationships between individuals in that group it can not account for those groups' and individuals' full effects upon the wider language community or even for the wider language community's effects upon them (and the individual's role in language change has not been studied on its own because unless some level of society is affected, language change, by definition, cannot occur). There is a sense that something is lost in the gap between the two focusses, something that relates to that methodologically inadmissible and largely undefinable factor 'what happens in real life'. Maybe this is because descriptions and correlations are not explanations (Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 19), and we so thirst for explanations that we wish to read our correlations as causal. As Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg put it, 'it is the general quest for a sociolinguistic theory that is at issue here' (ibid).
Putting aside as a tempting diversion the different arguments in this area, what seems relevant to the book under consideration seems to be Singh's call for a sociolinguistic theory where 'language structure and language use will be a differentiated unity and not merely the two autonomies of the orderliness of competence and the anarchy of performance, and the theory of discourse a rational reconstruction of the actualization of discourse potentials' (2). Bergs's underlying if loose affinity with Singh is signalled by his use of the word 'free', when he wonders 'whether speakers are essentially free to choose and may do what they want' (ibid). Singh has asked for a theory that allows the reconstruction of language as a social activity involving 'joy, truth and freedom' (Singh 1996a, 2), and desires an outlook that can 'reintegrate, at the level of analysis and theory, what was deliberately or inadvertently left out in [the] initial search for special frameworks' (4). What Bergs is implying when he asks 'How much are speakers constrained by their linguistic system, how much do they actually shape this system?' (263), although ostensibly expressing a desire for more attention to be paid in interpretations of data to the level of individual speaker, may in this context be seen as an unconscious plea for just such a sociolinguistics. Indeed, the whole of Singh's argument is an appropriate background to the themes underlying many of Berg's questions in this volume.
Having asked these questions, however, and shown some shortcomings of even a very carefully-prepared network analysis in sociolinguistics, what practical solutions does Berg present? First of all it should be noted that Bergs is not attempting to constitute a new criticial sociolinguistics as posited by Singh, but rather to show that 'any claim about cognitive, universal, or typological determinants of linguistic change need not only hold for the level of the speech community or its subgroups, but also for a substantial number of speakers in isolation, if it wants to reflect reality [. And that] variation on the level of individual speaker [...] is also guided by a number of both intra- and extralinguistic factors' (5). In fact, as his group correlations break down, the emphasis on interpretation of each individual's results becomes increasingly important. Then we may see the analyses in this volume as a brave attempt to try something new while at the same time clinging to the wreckage of a favourite methodology. The Social Network analysis of language does indeed provide a certain amount of freedom for the researcher to develop his or her own parameters of investigation (specifically in the definition of what constitutes a network tie and what score to give to each tie), although such adaptations are not widely discussed in the present work. What Berg seems to be promoting in terms of analytic technique, as a way to allow that freedom a chance to show itself, is to treat each variable and each informant (both individual and community) separately and then together, both in contrast and cumulatively. It is a huge and complicated undertaking, even with a relatively small number of writers in the core group. One of the findings from here is that the task is perhaps too massive, especially when different periods of time need to be taken into consideration as well.
Bergs, Alexander T (2000) 'Social Networks in Pre-1500 Britain: Problems, Prospects, Examples'. European Journal of English Studies, Vol 4, No. 3: 239-251.
Labov, William (2001) Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social Factors. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Mustanoja, Tauno F (1960) A Middle English Syntax. Helsinki: Societe Neophilologique.
Nevalainen, Terttu and Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena (2003) Historical Sociolinguistics. London: Longman.
Romaine, Suzanne (1996) 'The Status of Sociological Models and Categories in Explaining Language Variation'. In Singh 1996b: 99-114.
Singh, Rajendra (1996a) 'Introduction'. In Singh 1996b: 1-15.
Singh, Rajendra, ed. (1996b) 'Towards a Critical Sociolinguistics'. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Margaret J-M Sonmez teaches linguistics and English Literature at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara. Her research interests include variation in Early Modern English and the perception of written language.