Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is co-authored by Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty, a socio-linguist at the University of Augsburg and a historian at Bucknell University respectively. Their contribution shifts our focus onto the search for documents that record ordinary people speaking for themselves – or, at least, that seem to – a theme that will be developed over the next few posts. Here, Helmut and Ann introduce their ongoing project to collect the necessary sources to produce a ‘language history from below’ for early modern Germany – and it was a conversation about this project between the authors and Mark Hailwood, in a Pennsylvania bar, that planted the initial seed for this online symposium.
Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty
Our approach combines social-historical research with socio-linguistics in an attempt to apply to the early modern period methods associated with “language history from below.” This term was coined, obviously after “history from below”, to counter the standard top-down approach that has been the traditional focus of language historians exploring the development of New High German. In a tradition much like that of earlier generations of historians, whose focus has primarily been on elite actors, scholars examining sources produced almost exclusively by professional writers and printers has resulted in a teleological view of the emergence of a New High German written standard.
This view has recently come under attack, not least due to its judgmental approach to non-elite writing, which is normally much closer to actual speech than the texts of educated or professional writers. Working with nineteenth-century letters written by German emigrants to the United States, German language scholar Stephan Elspaß was able to show that linguistic phenomena considered “wrong” from a standard point of view were in fact based on alternative regional and social written standards. In short, “right” and “wrong” language features can in many cases be more accurately described as “elite” and “common.”
Inspired by these findings, our experiment began with the question of whether enough sources could be identified to produce a language history from below for the early modern period. The question begged interdisciplinary cooperation from the beginning for reasons of simple practicality. Very little of what was written by non-professionals before 1800 has survived, and what has been archived in public repositories tends to be scattered about and hard to find, requiring deep trolling through larger collections in accordance with the methods of a social historian. Once identified, however, the sources can only be fully exploited for the history of language by someone trained as a historical linguist. Here we would just like to introduce some of the kinds of sources we are looking at and what we are finding out about them. Continue reading