Language History from Below

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is co-authored by Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty, a socio-linguist at the University of Augsburg and a historian at Bucknell University respectively. Their contribution shifts our focus onto the search for documents that record ordinary people speaking for themselves – or, at least, that seem to – a theme that will be developed over the next few posts. Here, Helmut and Ann introduce their ongoing project to collect the necessary sources to produce a ‘language history from below’ for early modern Germany – and it was a conversation about this project between the authors and Mark Hailwood, in a Pennsylvania bar, that planted the initial seed for this online symposium.

Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty

Our approach combines social-historical research with socio-linguistics in an attempt to apply to the early modern period methods associated with “language history from below.” This term was coined, obviously after “history from below”, to counter the standard top-down approach that has been the traditional focus of language historians exploring the development of New High German. In a tradition much like that of earlier generations of historians, whose focus has primarily been on elite actors, scholars examining sources produced almost exclusively by professional writers and printers has resulted in a teleological view of the emergence of a New High German written standard.

This view has recently come under attack, not least due to its judgmental approach to non-elite writing, which is normally much closer to actual speech than the texts of educated or professional writers. Working with nineteenth-century letters written by German emigrants to the United States, German language scholar Stephan Elspaß was able to show that linguistic phenomena considered “wrong” from a standard point of view were in fact based on alternative regional and social written standards.[1] In short, “right” and “wrong” language features can in many cases be more accurately described as “elite” and “common.”

Inspired by these findings, our experiment began with the question of whether enough sources could be identified to produce a language history from below for the early modern period. The question begged interdisciplinary cooperation from the beginning for reasons of simple practicality. Very little of what was written by non-professionals before 1800 has survived, and what has been archived in public repositories tends to be scattered about and hard to find, requiring deep trolling through larger collections in accordance with the methods of a social historian. Once identified, however, the sources can only be fully exploited for the history of language by someone trained as a historical linguist. Here we would just like to introduce some of the kinds of sources we are looking at and what we are finding out about them.

Finding documents produced by non-professional writers requires persistence, as well as a certain amount of luck. Under the best of circumstances, identifying a single early modern collection that could rival those available for the nineteenth century is unlikely (for example, Elspaß’s conclusions were based on a sample from a collection of over 9,000 letters). Over the course of our 15-year collaboration, however, we have uncovered a significant corpus of sources written in the hands of literate or semi-literate townspeople produced under a variety of circumstances that, taken together, can provide a starting point for such a history. Our work so far has concentrated on the imperial city of Augsburg during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, appropriate because of its role during that period in the development of written standards in New High German; because of our familiarity with its local dialects; and especially due to its outstanding archival collections. Larger archival resources not only provide the best chance for finding these rare voices from below, but also increase the probability of being able to identify the contexts under which they were produced.

We have had the most success in both these endeavors among criminal trials, where such documents were occasionally archived as a kind of corpus delicti. They also appear as evidence in guild or other civil disputes, or, most serendipitously, among the leavings of an occasional civic official who was particularly obsessive about filing every bureaucratic scrap that crossed his desk. Very few of these sources come in the form of personal letters of the sort exploited by Elspaß for the nineteenth century. Letters from non-elite members of society written before 1700 are especially hard to find. In order to end up in an archive, they had to become part of a proceeding of some kind, for example in cases of fraud.

Even in small numbers, however, such sources can provide rich material for both historical linguists and social historians, since they include material produced by different writers of varying skill levels. A single case involving a fraudulent letter from 1591, for example, contains interrogation and punishment documents written in the standard chancery style; a report written by a literate bursar (Rentmeister) whose writing shows some distance from professional chancery language; and the letter itself, a page of text composed by a probably illiterate weaver and written down by an apprentice rope-maker to whom the weaver presumably dictated the text.[2] This document, although skillfully lettered, displays errors of style and grammar as well as forms phonetically and morphologically associated with local dialect. Comparing varying layers of writing skill involving individual writers in such a case provides a useful starting point for considering the relationship between written and spoken language.

A source type with which we have had greater numerical success is that of popular song, particularly slanderous songs. These might consist of rude verses written down by craftsmen and sung in the street, perhaps under the window of a girl they wished to disparage, as a form of urban charivari. Others were more political, aimed at rival religious or political groups or even directly at the authorities. Songs were well-suited for communicating protest even among illiterate populations, for familiar tunes and rhyming verses made the message easy to understand and to repeat. But the increased literacy rates and rise in availability of printed texts of the sixteenth century did not make this form of social and political protest obsolete. On the contrary – the fact that familiar songs could be printed, copied by hand, and then tucked into a pocket made them all the more accessible to urban craftsmen, who revised them to suit their needs and established a tradition of standard verse forms that were easily memorized.

A related genre is that of the pasquil or slander-sheet, examples of which were sometimes circulated around town or, more often, posted in public spaces to shame or slander another party or group, sometimes as a form of religious protest. In the rebellious sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both songs and slander sheets often targeted either church or government authorities. If those responsible for producing and circulating such texts could be identified, they could expect to be arrested, making themes of slander and protest a relatively well-represented genre among surviving examples of non-professional writing.

However unfortunate for those who faced arrest and punishment for producing slanderous songs, this is a lucky circumstance for the socio-linguist and the historian, for the medium of song in particular is a communication form that exists on the borderline between oral and written culture. An examination of nearly 50 such songs produced by 13 different writers has shown that these street songs clearly represent a type of written language that was linked to the local vernacular, with spelling that was still far from what one could call an ‘orthography’ in the strict sense of the word. Although the features we observed support the conclusion that the writers of these verses were well practised in their popular art, and very likely had attended some kind of school, they clearly did not share the skill level of professional printers or scribes. At the same time, some influence ‘from above’—that is, style gleaned from more standardized, printed texts—is also evident. This is true of the content of the songs as well as of their formal style. In satirical songs, inversion was often the norm, for example as artisan-composers turned motifs from printed love and morality songs against their unfortunate female targets in a carnivalesque parody of courtship rituals.

Also occasionally appearing in court or guild records are petitions, witness statements, or other forms of evidence written in the hand of unpracticed writers wishing to support a defendant or a party in a civil dispute. Our best example of this sort of artifact is a collection of brief statements provided in support of a popular seventeenth-century female healer named Margarete Ammann. Ammann first appears in the records as the target of an attack from the barber-surgeon’s guild, who accused her of infringing on their professional territory. Largely due to the arguments of a group of craftsmen’s wives who provided letters of support, however, Ammann was not only allowed to continue her practice, but eventually was provided a stipend as a civic employee. Particularly interesting about these statements is that a number of them included annotations by the women specifically stating that the notes were written “in [their] own handwriting.” This not only allows us to identify the writer, but also suggests that the writers believed that such a statement might carry some legal weight. This conclusion accords with the increasing value placed on personal signatures during the seventeenth century. Much like the songs discussed above, most of these notes also provide evidence of considerable distance from the writing of professionals, while at the same time reflecting some familiarity with formal chancery style (perhaps as a result of the writers’ own experience with the legal system).

Nearly all of the sources discussed so far are archived together with other documents, often interrogation records, most of which provide some context about the writers and how their work came to be part of the public record. The final category we will introduce here are of a different sort, instead presenting serial evidence of how non-professional writers were involved in the daily bureaucratic practice of the city. Two examples of sources belonging to this category are drinking passes (Zechzettel) and escort passes from Jews (Judenzettel). Drinking passes were required of city residents who wished to drink socially in villages outside the city walls in order to avoid punishments for evading the city’s high alcohol taxes, and Judenzettel were requests for safe escort from Jews with business to conduct in the city. The writing in these documents ranges from nearly professional to barely literate. Although brief, these notes survived in higher numbers that our other sources (so far we have identified 1,232 Zechzettel and 807 Judenzettel). Thus although they provide less context on the individual writers, they offer a much richer source base for linguistic analysis across a wide social spectrum. To mention only one finding based on these documents, linguistic analysis of the Judenzettel has revealed elements related to Yiddish orthography that do not exist in any of our other sources, including the large corpus of Zechzettel, thus verifying that they were produced by Jewish writers. At the same time, however, they also contain certain similarities to older Swabian dialects. These results suggest support for the thus-far unproven hypothesis that Jews did not leave Swabia entirely after their expulsion from the cities, but settled in Jewish communities further west, where their spoken German developed more conservatively than that of the Christian population from whom they were now more sharply segregated. The immediate result was a greater divide between spoken Yiddish and contemporary German that is identifiable in the escort passes.

Our collection of ordinary voices range from nearly anonymous and barely literate writers to skilled composers whose experiences can be explored in some depth. Taken together, they provide a meaningful corpus of linguistic and historical artifacts representing a wide spectrum of subaltern society. They also reveal a series of layers of text production that operated in discourse with one another. Although their orthography, grammar, and style reflect obvious distance from the German in use by printers and professional writers during the same period, many of these texts also suggest general familiarity with professional legalese and the content of popular prints. What appeared in handwriting or print was also influenced by oral forms.

On a final note, we would like to point out that the archive that houses these extraordinary documents is currently closed in order to deal with an insect infestation that destroyed some important records and threatened many more. This catastrophe followed closely upon the collapse of another of Germany’s most important repositories of early modern handwriting, the City Archive of Cologne, as a result of careless construction on a nearby subway. These incidents remind us that the records of countless lives, many of whose voices appear only once among them, are still threatened with extinction. For this reason, we have digitized the majority of these artifacts, and plan to continue doing so to the extent that we are permitted. It’s hard enough to find the voice of the people; it’s even harder to interpret it; and it remains a challenge to get the historical profession to take it seriously. It would be hardest of all to lose these fragile voices entirely before we even know what they can tell us.


[1] Stephan Elspaß, Sprachgeschichte von unten. Untersuchungen zum geschriebenen Alltagsdeutsch im 19. Jahrhundert (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2005).

[2] Helmut Graser and B. Ann Tlusty, ‘Layers of Literacy: Non-Professional Versus Professional Writing in a Sixteenth-Century case of Fraud’, in Robin Barnes and Marjorie E. Plummer (eds.), Ideas and Cultural Margins in Early Modern Germany: Essays in Honor of H. C. Erik Midelfort (Farnham, Burlington: Ashgate, 2009). 31–47.

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