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Letters as Sociohistorical-linguistic Documents


Admission requirements

A relevant BA degree.


Sociolinguists want to get access to informal spoken language – an impossible aim for the historical sociolinguist. In this course we will look at the next-best option: the language of private, informal letters, and we will draw on these letters as an object of sociolinguistic analysis. The focus will be on the Late Modern English period (1700 – 1900), and on published and unpublished letters by famous and not-so-famous people, ranging from Jane Austen, Mrs Montagu and Robert Lowth to William and Elizabeth Clift. We will study handwriting, letter-writing conventions and the postal system; the spelling, vocabulary and grammar of the language of letters; and we will correlate our findings with sociolinguistic variables such as the writer’s social and regional origin, age, gender and education as well as social network membership.

Course objectives

By analysing eighteenth-century English letters, as well as reading relevant background literature on the subject, students will gain insight into the sociolinguistic diversity of the language of the period as well as into linguistic changes which occurred on all linguistic levels. In doing so they will gain experience in the use of current research methods relevant for the study of historical sociolinguistics, including corpus linguistics. After completion of the course, students will be well equipped to write a master’s thesis on a topic of central interest to historical sociolinguistics.


The timetable will be available by June 1st on the website.

Mode of instruction

2-hour weekly seminar

Assessment method

Active course participation, including a presentation (20%), and a written essay (80%).



Reading list

  • Marina Dossena & Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2008), Studies in Late Modern English Correspondence: Methodology and Data. Bern: Lang.

  • Additional background reading.


Students should register through uSis.
Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte
Registration Contractonderwijs