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A historical digital archive of Portuguese letters

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Abstract

Documents from the letter genre, and private letters above all, are the best possible data for studying everyday men and women in society, their linguistic knowledge and behavior, as well as their social inscription. Although they are written matter, letters are very close to the informal tenor of spoken utterances. They are frail “light” papers, containing temporary messages, so they seldom reach the printed dignity (publishers only invest in letters by writers, intellectuals or politicians). Kept either in private hands or in archives that filed them for accidental reasons, they are absent in that kind of massive corpora where researchers test their hypotheses. But this state of affairs can change if investment is made in projects like the one presented here: a digital archive of Portuguese private correspondence fulfilling the following needs: 1. The need for massive sets of informal, close-to-spoken sources, felt by historical linguists when trying to understand the mechanisms of language change; in diachronic research, rather than making ‘the best possible use of bad data’ (as in Labov’s famous expression), it is better to make sure you have rather ‘good data’ right from the beginning. 2. The need for naturally occurring first-person testimonies felt by sociologists when trying to be empirical about the understanding of social life phenomena. 3. The need for using philological expertise with non-literary texts as well as with non-institutional ones. The established practice of putting textual criticism to the service only of prestige-invested texts and authors is a way of maintaining the exclusive preservation of canonical high culture – and its standard language – in the history of written communication.

References

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