Historical sociolinguistics

Prof. dr. Rik Vosters


In this new course, which will be taught for the first time this academic year, we will explore the main topics, methods and theories within the field of historical sociolinguistics. After an introduction on what historical sociolinguistics is, why a historical sociolinguistic approach is useful, and how historical sociolinguistics studies language variation and change at the macro level, we will deal with a range of themes, such as dialect contact, standardization, social networks, communities and individuals, genres, speech and writing, language history from below, attitudes and ideologies, multilingualism and language contact, and language planning. The course will use examples and cases from different languages and linguistic communities, with a special emphasis on recent and ongoing research into the history of Dutch, linking up with the research specialization in historical sociolinguistics within the department.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should have learned:

  1. to recognize, situate and explain relevant theories, concepts and terms from the field of historical sociolinguistics;
  2. to apply your knowledge of and insight into theories, concepts and terms in the field to a range of case studies in different languages;
  3. the necessary scientific independence to carry out a thorough study of research literature on a specialized topic and/or a relatively small-scale empirical research project on a related topic within the field of historical sociolinguistics;
  4. to report about your reading of specialized literature in the field by means of a seminar presentation, using fluent academic English and making correct use of the appropriate sociolinguistic terminology;
  5. to report about your insights and findings of a critical literature review and/or an empirical study in the form of a scientific paper, written in an appropriate academic register of a standard variety of English and with an accurate and rich use of the acquired terminology.


During the academic year 2019-2020, the course will be based on a first draft of the textbook on historical sociolinguistics currently under contract in the Key Topics in Sociolinguistics series with Cambridge University Press (Rutten, G. & R. Vosters. In preparation. Historical sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.). Draft versions of individual chapters will be provided to the students in electronic format. Note that not all chapters may already be available at the start of the course, and material may be provided over the course of the semester, as it become available.

All feedback, corrections and suggestions for improvement on the material are more than welcome, and particularly useful feedback will be credited in the word of thanks of the final version of the textbook. You can use www.rikvosters.be/errata to send me corrections and feedback.

Course organization

The course will consist of four sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Capita selecta
  3. Guest lectures
  4. Conclusion

Classes take place on Tuesday 11am – 1pm. The room can be found in the online timetable.

The provisional course schedule, which may of course still change throughout the course of the semester, is as follows:

Section 1: Introduction

  • 24/9: Introduction and practical information
  • 1/10: Why historical sociolinguistics and macro-level variation and change
  • 8/10: no class (seminar preparation time!) – if necessary: revision of practical info 24/9 (contact me by email if you need this)

Section 2: Capita selecta

  • 15/10: Dialect contact
  • 22/10: Standardization
  • 29/10: Networks, communities and individuals
  • 5/11: Genres, speech and writing
  • 12/11: Language history from below
  • 19/11: Multilingualism and language contact
  • 26/11: Language planning (.)

Section 3: Guest lectures

  • 3/12: Peter Trudgill (Fribourg/University of East Anglia):
    ‘The Norfolk dialect and the Spanish inquisition’
  • 12/12 (! Thursday, 4-6pm): Gijsbert Rutten (Leiden):
    ‘Letters as loot. A sociolinguistic approach to 17th and 18th-century Dutch’

Section 4: Conclusion

  • 17/12: Course conclusion and final Q&A

The introductory classes will be given by the lecturer entirely, with the possibility for questions and input from students. The capita selecta lectures will consist of a first part, in which the lecturer summarizes the main points of the chapter or course text on the subject at hand, followed by a student-led seminar, where we discuss one case study (additional reading) in more detail.

Overview of course content

To be added soon


The final grade is calculated based on the following components:

  • Discussion seminar and presentation (accounting for 40% of the final grade)
  • Research paper (accounting for 60% of the final grade)

More details on the expectations for each of these components can be found below, in addition to the further tips and instructions given over the course of the semester.

Participation in discussions throughout the semester can also be taken into account for the presentation grade (±20% of the total score for this partial grade).

If students are to take the exam during the second (‘resit’) session, their grade will solely be based on the written research paper (100% of the final grade).

Student who do not participate in all of the separate evaluation criteria of the course, will be marked absent for the course as a whole.

Late submissions of assignments, papers or other tasks will be accepted until 48 hours after the deadline. For submissions up to 24 hours after the deadline, the student’s result will be lowered by 15%, and for submissions between 24 and 48 hours after the deadline, the student’s result will be lowered by 30%. Submission that are more than 48% late will not be evaluated anymore and will be marked as an ‘absence’. All deadlines hold for both digital as well as paper copies (i.e. if a student only hands in the digital version in time, and submits the paper version two days late, they will lose 30% of their grade on this assignment).