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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

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Joanna Kopaczyk & Andreas H. Jucker: Communities of Practice in the History of English

Markus Schiegg
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  • School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol, 17 Woodland Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1TE, UK
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Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0007

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Communities of Practice in the History of English. (Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 235), edited by Joanna Kopaczyk & Andreas H. Jucker. Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2013, ISBN: 978-9-02725-640-9 vii, 291 pp., €95.00/$143.00

This volume focuses on the variation and change of the English language in different historical and social contexts. As the word practice in the title indicates, its interest lies in the speakers’ and writers’ “actions” that lead to language change, rather than on abstract reconfigurations of linguistic systems. Such actions take place in communities, between people and within groups of people regularly engaging with each other. This approach not only relies on the social factors of language change but also on the relevance of the discourse inside the community itself. Following Wenger (1998) and Meyerhoff (2002), Jucker and Kopaczyk define a community of practice as a “group of people who interact and share ways of doing things” (p. 6). Three criteria are established: common engagement in shared practices, the joint enterprise of the members of a community, and a repertoire of resources shared and developed by its members.

The framework of communities of practice is the common thread running through the twelve papers of this volume, which deal with the use of the English language in different times – from Anglo-Saxon England to the Late Modern English period – and places – England, Scotland, the United States and South Africa. The volume is divided into three sections, each comprising four papers: (I) the networks of letter writers, (II) the groups of scribes and printers, and (III) professionals.

The papers presented in the first section draw on different, mostly unpublished corpora of letters from different English-speaking areas from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Janet Cruickshank’s (pp. 19–45) analyzis is based on 634 Scottish private letters from the 2nd Earl of Fife to his steward Rose (the Fife-Rose Corpus) written in the second half of the eighteenth century during the emergence of Scottish Standard English and the stigmatization of “Scotticisms” by language societies. The Earl of Fife’s letters show many traces of the Scots language. Cruickshank explains this with the lack of “propriety between the men to be satisfied” (p. 35). This conforms with a commonly found pattern in the written language of higher social classes: they could afford to be sloppy, in contrast to social aspirers’ adherence to prescriptive language norms. Marina Dossena’s (pp. 47–60) nineteenth-century Scottish business letters are from the Corpus of Nineteenth-century Scottish Correspondence, currently being compiled at the University of Bergamo. She analyses the use of religious formulae in letters outside the domain of religion. Such formulae appear both in familiar and in business letters with the function to contribute to “social coherence” (p. 56). Dossena shows that religious formulae were a “common ground” (p. 57) throughout all layers of society and strengthened their community ties. Radosław Dylewski’s paper (pp. 61–81) focuses on the variation of verbal morphology, specifically the past tense be paradigms, in a corpus of 209 unpublished letters from 13 writers who were Civil War missives from northwestern South Carolina. His analyzis confirms observations from other, similar letter corpora: while a considerable individual variation between was and were can be observed especially in the plural forms, was dominated in both the singular and the plural in the nineteenth-century substandard. This conforms with Trudgill’s (2002: 98) characterization of the exclusive marking of the 3rd person singular in Standard English as a “typological oddity” – other varieties of English can show such a marking in different numbers and persons, too. Matylda Włodarczyk (pp. 83–102) analyses the petition letters of early nineteenth-century settlers in the Cape Colony. Her corpus consists of 325 letters from 127 individuals who shared the practice of petitioning the colonial authorities, a procedure that functioned as “a means of exercising individual civil rights and power” (p. 84). Hereby, she convincingly argues for two communities of practice, the “expert” and the “learner” communities, which, however, shared a common goal: “producing a successful written request” (p. 100).

Part II of the volume deals with communities of scribes and printers from England between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. The first paper by Justyna Rogos (pp. 105–121) analyses the spelling systems in ten manuscripts of Chaucer’s Man of the Law’s Tale (1430–1475). She shows that Middle English scribes both socially and linguistically formed a “coherent community of practice” (p. 107) that shared several practices based on scribal experience of Latin-based literacy like using superscripts and brevigraphs. However, they had enough leeway to “preserve their idiosyncratic habits” (p. 107) in their profession, which attests a rather high degree of individuality in this community. Similarly, but now with a focus on printed text, Hanna Rutkowska (pp. 123–149) compares the typography and graphomorphemics in five editions of the almanac Kalender of Shepherdes (1506–1570). Different printers shared woodcuts, running heads, signatures, catchwords, and abbreviations, which illustrates their being a community of practice. Rutkowska identifies three levels of communities between these early printers. On the highest level, they were all members of a guild and had to follow the same regulations; printing houses shared experiences, procedures and tools. Second, the members of printing houses themselves formed smaller communities that followed “the same house procedures” (p. 126). Finally, these conventions were passed on to the following generations of workers, which gives these communities of practice a diachronic dimension. Jukka Tyrkkö (pp. 151–175) focuses on early modern printing houses in London as communities of practice. He compares the frequencies of pre-standard spellings, as well as the use of brevigraphs and macrons, in a corpus that comprises medical books from 88 different printers. The methods applied in this paper are based on a software programme used for identifying spelling variants (VARD 2), which offers “a phonetic matching algorithm, a list of letter replacement rules, a normalized edit distance algorithm, and a list of previously encountered variants and their replacement” (p. 160; cf. Lehto et al. 2010). This allows for an efficient comparison of this huge number of texts. The institutional community of practice becomes visible in the “remarkable degree of conformity when it comes to orthographic change” (p. 169), e.g. the concurrent disappearance of brevigraphs across different printing houses. Anni Sairio (pp. 177–197) compares spelling, punctuation and capitalization in the draft and printed version of Elizabeth Montagu’s Shakespeare Essay (1769). The essay draft was compiled by the intellectual circle around Montagu to produce a “high-quality scholarly work” (p. 178). This first community of practice around the author often applied more conservative and rather non-standardized language features; however, they are more standardized than private letters from the same period. The second community of practice that Sairio examines dealt with the publication process – renowned booksellers and publishers who updated the spellings to contemporary public printing conventions. As a consequence, printers can be seen as agents of language change regarding the features analysed in this paper.

Part III finally focuses exclusively on professionals from Anglo-Saxon England to the 17th century. Olga Timofeeva’s paper (pp. 201–223) is on bilingual communities of practice in Anglo-Saxon England that use both Anglo-Latin and Old English, thus leading to interferences between the two linguistic codes. In her two corpora of Anglo-Latin (670–800) and Old English (850–1050) texts, she compares the use of vocabulary connected with the concepts of ‘Latin’ or ‘Latinity’ and ‘Roman’ or ‘Romanity’. She finds a “continuity of lexical practices between the two codes of the same communicative system” (p. 217), where ‘Latin’ is mainly associated with linguistic and literary contexts as well as contexts of ethnic entities in general, while ‘Roman’ dominates in imperial, ecclesiastical, military and administrative contexts. Joanna Kopaczyk (pp. 225–250) analyses legal and administrative discourse in medieval and early modern Scotland (1380–1560). Applying a “new corpus tool in historical linguistics” (p. 226), she searches for recurrent lexical bundles, 4-grams, that refer to the “text community”, e.g. personal names or names of offices and titles that were part of the community of clerks and notaries. Her meticulous study enables her to find out how a community of practice (legal professionals) creates such a “text community” that uses these legal documents. Anna Hebda and Małgorzata Fabiszak (pp. 251–268) focus on the Early Modern English communities of medical practitioners, physicians and surgeons, and compare lexical and collocational characteristics of their language. They again apply corpus tools (collocations, keywords and lexical bundles) to the corpus of Early Modern English Medical Texts and find out that although the two groups of professionals pursued different areas of interest and preferred different methods of treatment, they both relied on “Galen’s humoral theory of physiology as a framework for describing health- and disease-related issues” (p. 266). Maurizio Gotti’s (pp. 269–285) article deals with the formation of the Royal Society (founded in 1662) as a community of practice and discourse. Analysing both public texts, like articles from their Philosophical Transactions, and private texts, like correspondence and diaries, Gotti illustrates that this group of seventeenth-century British natural philosophers adhered to “common linguistic and stylistic principles”, which “favored the consolidation of this new community and the establishment of its specific identity” (p. 270).

The papers of this volume illustrate the transferability of the community of practice concept to different areas of research, which proves its suitability for historical linguistics as an “explanatory framework for language forms and functions and – ultimately – for language change” (Jucker and Kopaczyk, p. 14). One might question, however, whether all of the communities discussed in the individual contributions actually conform to the three criteria of communities of practice. The papers demonstrate how fruitful data-oriented approaches combined with innovative corpus linguistic tools can be, which makes the volume not only valuable for those interested in the language history of English but for historical sociolinguistics in general.


  • Lehto, Anu, Alistair Baron, Maura Ratia & Paul Rayson. 2010. Improving the precision of corpus methods: The standardized version of early modern English medical texts. In Irma Taavitsainen & Päivi Pahta (eds.), Early modern English medical texts, 279–290. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Google Scholar

  • Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2002. Communities of practice. In Jack K. Chambers, Peter Trudgill & Natalie Schilling-Estes (eds.), The handbook of language variation and change, 525–548. Oxford: Blackwell. Google Scholar

  • Trudgill, Peter. 2002. Sociolinguistic variation and change. Edinburgh: University Press. Google Scholar

  • Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 135–138, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0007.

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