English Historical Linguistics in Zürich

Last week, the 17th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics was held at Zürich University in Switzerland. On Monday afternoon, the conference was opened with a word of welcome by the president of the university Andreas Fischer, who is also an English historical linguist. Following, David Denison delivered the first of the conference’s six plenary papers. Despite the temperature being around 30ºC the entire week, the some 130 papers presented in the course of the following 5 days were well attended.

The meeting Usage & normativism: Public Discourse & Critical Language Awareness, which we held on Tuesday to discuss the role of historical linguists in raising critical language awareness proved to be a good first step towards introducing more linguists to our project Bridging the Unbridgeable. To get even more of you in on the discussion, I will be posting the discussion points on this blog in the coming weeks.

Of course I wasn’t able to attend all papers, but these are the ones that stood out for me. Minna Nevala‘s Barbers, Beggars & Hungry Spies: on social identification of criminals in early English. Her paper dealt with the formation & formulation of social identity and the rhetoric surrounding criminals in the 18th century. In the Tuesday plenary lecture The Eighteenth Century Speaks: the challenge of historical phonology of the Late Modern period, Joan Beal related the story of the new Cinderella of English linguistics, 18th-century phonology. As we’ve come to expect from her, it was told in typical fashion,  including ugly stepsisters and fairy godmothers. Others I found interesting were Victorina González-Díaz‘s paper on the intensifier quite in Jane Austen’s novels and letters; Anita Auer & Mikko Laitinen‘s presentation of a new corpus project called Letters of Artisans and the Labouring Poor (LALP), based on the pauper letters that Tony Fairman collected and transcribed over the past eighteen  years; Susan Fitzmaurice‘s paper on the changes in race rhetoric in Zimbabwe; Ursula Lenker‘s Thursday plenary lecture on adverbial placement in the history of English; Judith Huber‘s paper on motion verbs in the history of English; and Beatrix Busse‘s paper presenting a plan for an automated methology to distinguish modes of speech & thought presentation.

I was a little surprised – but pleasantly! – at how many papers bore some relevance to the questions that we at Bridging the Unbridgeable are trying to answer. Lieselotte Anderwald‘s paper on the rise & reception of the passive progressive in the 19th & 20th centuries detailed nicely how one feature’s prescriptivism & practice each go their own way; and Don Chapman illustrated useful distinctions in his paper on that old usage chestnut infer vs. imply. And last but definitely not least, I especially enjoyed Anne Curzan‘s excellent Friday plenary lecture Prescriptivism: More Than Descriptivism’s Foil, in which she teased out different strands of prescriptivism.

On Friday, we had a lovely dinner in the historical building of Zürich’s vintner’s guild, and due to the good weather plenty of opportunity (and need!) for a refreshing swim in Lake Zürich.

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About Robin Straaijer

Linguist of English prescriptivism and standards. Lover of photography and comedy.
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