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The Language of the Labouring Poor in Late Modern England

The SNSF-funded project The Language of the Labouring Poor in Late Modern England combines English historical sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics. The project, which runs from 2020-2024, is based on a collection of Late Modern English pauper petitions that is being converted into a searchable corpus.

Rooted in the fields of historical sociolinguistics and the history of the English language, the research project The Language of the Labouring Poor in Late Modern England (LALP) aims at gaining a better understanding of the role of social stratification in real-time linguistic change and at complementing the ‘traditional’ history of written English during its late codification and early prescription stages, particularly the period c. 1780-1840. The long-prevailing ‘traditional’ view has been concerned with the description of language variation and change in print and the role that the educated elite played in the standardisation process. Newly available manuscript sources by the labouring poor, i.e. pauper petitions written under the Old Poor Law, can however now provide a new and complementary perspective on the existing language history by focusing on the majority group in society. Importantly, the data from the lower social orders allow for the investigation of the role of social stratification in linguistic variation and change through the comparison of language use across different social layers.

To this end, a collection of c. 2050 pauper petition letters from the period c. 1795–1834 (The Old Poor Law) will be converted into a searchable corpus that will serve as the basis for new linguistic investigations. The main aim of the project is to determine the role of the social stratification variable in language variation and change in the period c. 1795–1834 (theoretical level). To answer this question, the systematic investigation of lower-order language (morpho-syntax, orthography, phonological reflections in spelling) and a comparison to language use across the social strata (in letters written by the elite and middling sort) is required (descriptive level).

The pauper petition corpus, which serves as the basis for the study, will contain a diplomatic version (philologically accurate), a plain text version, a version in xml format, as well as spelling normalization, and the addition of meta-linguistic information. Upon completion, the corpus will be made available to the academic community.

Project website:

Core Team

Anita Auer
Anne-Christine Gardner
Mark Iten


Reused with permission of the Cumbria Archive Centre, Barrow-in-Furness (Ref: BPR10O52)

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