We’re not so different, you know?

Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”

With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!

The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change. 

The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to. 

One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist. 

Italic script. The image is taken from this article, where you can also read more about the history of Italic script.

As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned. 

On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.

The Ruthwell Cross, photo by Lisa Gotthard

In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.

Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice. 

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