During the last few weeks of the course Letters as Sociohistorical-Linguistic Documents, I’ve been reminded of the many special linguistic insights which letters are able to provide. We’ve read,* for example, about how letters may provide evidence for reconstructing social relationships and social networks. Here’s a neat video from Stanford University’s Republic of Letters project about tracking an 18th-century social network through letters.
Letters are great because they are able to provide linguistic insights at level of idiolect as well as dialect. For example, the cross-outs and other self-corrections found in letters may provide information about, among other things, the writer’s personal usage habits and the usage conventions of the period in which the letters were written. (This lovely essay on letters refers to cross-outs as ‘electrocardiograms of the soul.’)
Handwriting is another rich source of information for linguists. The handwriting of a letter may provide clues about the education level, occupation, and social status of the writer. Moreover, a careful, controlled script or a hasty scrawl may indicate the emotional state or the immediate circumstances under which a letter was written. Another important advantage of studying personal letters is that they are a source of language which is, in principle, not affected by the observer’s paradox.
I recently had a serendipitous encounter with the fantastic website: Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. I wholeheartedly agree with the site’s subtitle. Letters of Note currently contains the texts of 804 letters from 112 AD to the present. The site provides various options for browsing – or you can try your luck by clicking on the right-hand link for ‘random letter.’ I found the handwritten letters (which are accompanied by transcriptions) particularly interesting in light of their potential as a source of linguistic information – in addition to their aesthetic and emotional resonance. In any event, I think the material found on the Letters of Note site is valuable to linguists and aficionados of letters and beautiful things alike.
*In Dossena, Marina and Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds.). 2008. Studies in Late Modern English Correspondence: Methodology and Data. Bern: Peter Lang.