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Open Linguistics: Topical Issue on Historical Sociolinguistic Philology

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Chiara Barbati, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
Christian Gastgeber, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria


Historical sociolinguistic philology: a new hybrid discipline, its interests, and its scope

The present special issue showcases the ongoing research endeavors of the Austrian Academy of Science's 'Sociolinguistic Forum' research group, which unites philologists from various research areas and present-day synchronic sociolinguists (or, more precisely, 'sociocultural linguists' – Bucholtz & Hall 2008) in an innovative trans-disciplinary dialogue. Contributions to our issue explore why it is important to transpose present-day, synchronic sociolinguistic research approaches to the study of conceptually written historical texts (including texts in languages that have ceased to exist as such today), and how exactly this venture may be undertaken. The following types of phenomena are to be selectively and exemplarily explored:

  1. Language contact, (individual and societal) multilingualism, language ideologies, as well as concomitant code-switching, style-shifting, and identity practices, including agentive usages of language shifting as a contextualization strategy (Gumperz 1982).
  2. The 'orderly heterogeneity' (Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968: 100) in variable language use, and the ways in which linguistic variation is (indexically and constitutively) connected to social variation.

Accordingly, the contributions to this issue address the following types of sociolinguistically-minded research questions:
a. In addition to the 'matrix language' (the most used one), which other languages or varieties can be found in the treated texts (e.g. in the form of style shifts and code-switching)?; b. How frequently do these languages/varieties occur? Are the different linguistic systems easily distinguishable, or are some words difficult to assign to a specific language/variety? c. What social significance or 'meaning' (social associations) do these different languages/varieties bear? d. What rhetorical effects can the use of these languages/varieties be linked with? e. To what extent can be assumed that the audience (the addressees / readers) of the texts understood such rhetorical effects? f. Are there any contemporary or historical meta-linguistic materials commenting on the use of different languages/varieties in the surviving texts? What comments are made?

Our ultimate goal is to add more depth to our understanding of human linguistic practice across vast divides of time and space, by finding ways to unravel and study more (and more subtle) dimensions of the "layered simultaneity" (Nevalainen 2015) of social discourses and contexts present in historical texts than have hitherto been the staple of the philologies in their focus on document recovery, assessment, analysis, and interpretation. 
The theoretical basis of our endeavor is a socio-interactional model of human communicative meaning-making, by which the latter is regarded as a dialogic process of mutual anticipation, interpretation, and negotiation between addresser and addressee (Bakhtin 1986[1952-53]; Goffman 1959; Gumperz 1982, 2001; Erickson 1986; Tannen 1989, 2004). In other words, in a communicative exchange both speaker and listener are equally implicated as active participants who jointly make sense of what is going on. Their relationship is dialogical in that it is of a two-way nature: where speakers design their utterances in expectation of listeners' responses, trying to influence these responses (i.e. trying to relate certain communicative messages), listeners in turn are not merely passively influenced by speakers' utterances but also actively shape these utterances through their responsive stance.

Interaction is thus not conceptualized simply as the activity of packaging and passing messages back and forth, but rather as an emergent, ongoing process of creation, negotiation, and interpretation in which both speaker and listener have a meaning-constitutive role to play. The nature of this process is cast as 'inference' by Gumperz (1982), who postulates that it is an activity of concocting meaning by relating communicative (including verbal) signals to interactional context so as to arrive at fully 'contextualized' messages. 'Context' here is not restricted to any particular order level; rather, it may draw on anything from micro to macro, from past to present to future projections, from immediate physical surroundings to global or even imagined settings, from short turns to whole speech events, from local personas to generalized identity categories, and so on (see e.g. Erickson 1982 for illustration).

It follows from this model of interaction that all communicative meaning is context-bound, sensitive, and -relative; and this, notably, includes a bounded-ness to the locally situated, immediate, emergent interactional situation. A sociolinguist's comprehensive interpretation of meaning must therefore likewise take into account the concrete, locally, culturally, temporally, and spatially situated frame, perspective, and reality within which the participants are (or were) interacting.

While the model as just outlined was conceived with spoken interaction in mind, it arguably also applies to the realm of written language, in the sense that there, too, an interaction is taking place, namely between an author on the one hand, and a reader (addressee) on the other–whether the latter be real or imagined, close by or distant (by time and/or space). And if writing is an interaction, then its meaning, too, emerges from a context that includes the locally situated reality of the author and addressee. It is this point in particular we wish to firmly establish in the historical philologies by means of our current joint, trans-disciplinary endeavor: written language use also cannot be satisfactorily analyzed without reference to the immediate, on-the-ground-level social context and situation within which it arose. And this research agenda can be usefully scaffolded by cross-culturally validated findings from synchronic sociolinguistics that have already described and explicated the phenomena and processes involved.

Yet, even on the scaffold of a fundamentally sociolinguistic conceptualization of how linguistic communication works, and on the basis of existing synchronic sociocultural linguistic descriptions of the related fallout processes and phenomena of multilingualism, language ideology, and variation in language use, the challenges for application to the analysis of historical texts are numerous. The contributions to this special issue provide a first set of potential blueprints for how to tackle these, showcased in sociolinguistic analyses of documentations from a wide variety of settings and languages. Each article also features a critical discussion of the affordances and contingencies of its approach, with its inherent limitations and restrictions of scope, so as to circumspectly present and promote the agenda of what we have come to call 'historical sociolinguistic philology'. 


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