Between linguistic creativity and formulaic restriction

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This paper is concerned with the correspondence of nineteenth-century non-professional writers, and I particularly intend to look at private letters written by emigrants and soldiers from the lower and lower middle ranks of society. These writers sent letters to convey information, make appeals, or just ‘chat’ with relatives and friends. In order to communicate successfully, they had to be linguistically ‘creative’, i.e. make flexible use of a variety which they would not normally use in everyday speech, and at the same time follow certain conventions of letter writing. It has been demonstrated, e.g. in Elspaß (1999), Austin (2004) and Dossena (2007), that even barely schooled writers relied heavily on textual routines and formulaic patterns from model letters and other text sources. Taking ‘creative’ and ‘formulaic’ language as sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementing constituents of letter writing, I will attempt to reconstruct the writing process exerted by nineteenth-century non-professional writers when they put pen to paper. Most of the letters used for this analysis were written in German. Examples from English, Danish and Dutch letters will be drawn on for the purpose of cross-linguistic comparison. My claim is that the results and conclusions of the analysis are not language-specific, but bear resemblances in several western language communities of the time.


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