The study of correspondence

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Language, be it remember&#8217;d, is not an abstract construction of the learn&#8217;d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. (Walt Whitman, <i>Slang in America, 1885</i>) Correspondence is an ideal field in which to ask significant research questions, not only on the internal history of the language, but also on its socio-historical varieties, and their relationship with prescriptive trends in linguistic commentary. In addition, it invites reflections on what tools are in fact available to answer these research questions. Huge numbers of letters, notes, circulars and memos are held in private collections or stored in libraries and archives, but linguists seem to have only just begun to scratch the surface of this extraordinary mine of manuscript or typescript sources, especially as far as Late Modern times are concerned. In recent years corpora have been compiled on the correspondence of specific authors, sampling collections from edited or unedited texts, or actually transcribing authentic manuscripts from a range of sources. All such enterprises are valid in their quest for reliable data, and it is important to stress their unifying traits. This contribution aims to discuss some significant problems facing linguists who intend to study Late Modern English correspondence, such as the quantity and quality of data available for investigation, issues in transcription and in corpus compilation and publication/distribution. Considerations will be based on the work carried out so far for the compilation of the Corpus of Nineteenth-century Scottish Correspondence (19CSC), in an attempt to assess experience and outline more encompassing methodological principles for future research. Special attention will be given to the application of such principles to the study of pragmatic moves in business and familiar correspondence.


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