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Review of  Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: 'Margaret J-M Sonmez' ['Margaret J-M Sonmez'] Margaret J-M Sonmez
Book Title: Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Alexander Th. Bergs
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English, Middle
Book Announcement: 16.2367

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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-
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

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)

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'

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

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:

Labov, William (2001) Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social
Factors. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Mustanoja, Tauno F (1960) A Middle English Syntax. Helsinki: Societe

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.


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.

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