4 Apr 2011 - 6 Apr 2011All daySt John's College and University Library



Esther Miriam Wagner  (Cambridge University Library)


Conference summary

This interdisciplinary conference aims to investigate the emergence of language registers and the spread of innovation within scribal networks, and to highlight the importance of written texts as a rich and promising source of data for the examination of language change using the techniques of sociolinguistics.



The proposed conference will bring together scholars working on the scribal cultures of various languages, from the earliest written to later medieval languages, to investigate how standard and substandard registers of languages emerge out of scribal communities, and to apply sociolingistic methods to determine how innovations spread within scribal networks and how language change occurs within written registers of languages. Philologists from various fields, such as Prof Geoffrey Khan (Arabic), Dr Dmitry Bondarev (African languages), and Dr Ben Outhwaite (Hebrew) will be joined by renowned sociolinguists, such as Prof Terttu Nevalainen, who was particularly attracted to the interdisciplinary aspects of the conference, and by historical linguists such as Prof Roger Wright (Romance languages) and Prof David Trotter (French).


The value of written sources for the study of sociolinguistics has largely been neglected due to the field’s focus on oral communication. It has often been remarked that written records are an imperfect source for the study of language change, or as Labov put it, historical linguistics is ‘the art of making the best use out of bad data’ (1994: 11). The relatively recent fields of historical sociolinguistics and historical pragmatics, however, have provided new theoretical frameworks and methodological tools for the study of language change (Romaine 1982, Bergs 2005), for instance, social network analysis as applied to scribal networks. Furthermore, recent years have seen a growing recognition that speakers and listeners in actual communicative situations – as opposed to abstract forces or structures – are the primary agents of change (e.g., Keller 1994, Croft 2000). However, these latter studies have rarely taken an interest in the close analysis of texts and their writers and addressees. In fact, speakers and writers are often conflated, as are listeners and readers. As a result, little attention has been paid to the actual producers and consumers of the written texts that constitute the data for the study of language change. Moreover, the great majority of work carried out in historical sociolinguistics and related fields has principally dealt with the Germanic languages of Western and Northern Europe. The time is right, therefore, for a conference to bring together scholars working on a wide range of Indoeuropean languages, such as Romance, Judaeo-Persian, Celtic, Hittite, but also philologists working on Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian, African languages, such as Kanuri, and Egyptian.


Accommodation for non-paper giving participants

Conference participants can find information about accommodation in Cambridge at the following URLs:
NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


The convener is grateful for the support of The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit and St John's College at the University of Cambridge. 

Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH) 


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk