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   International Junior Research Groups

Flexible Writers in Language History

Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg

[Bildunterschrift / Subline]: Letter by the patient Balbina H. to her daughter Anna (1909). Archive of the Bezirkskrankenhaus Kaufbeuren, file no. 1996.

International Junior Research Group
in Humanities and Social Sciences

Head:  Dr. Markus Schiegg

Contact: markus.schiegg@fau.de

Duration: 5 years

Affiliated Program within the Elite Network of Bavaria:

Elite Graduate Program Ethics of Textual Cultures


  • Paris Lodron University Salzburg, Institute for German Literature and Language, Stephan Elspaß
  • University of Flensburg, Institute for German Language, Literature and the Media, Nils Langer
  • Université de Lausanne, English Linguistics, Anita Auer
  • University of Wisconsin, Department of German, Joseph Salmons
  • Trinity College Dublin, Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Deborah Thorpe
  • Department of Neurology, Leeds General Infirmary, Jane Alty
  • University of Innsbruck, Institute for German Literature and Language, Konstantin Niehaus
  • University of Regensburg, Department of German Linguistics, Paul Rössler
  • University of Augsburg, Department of German Linguistics, Péter Maitz, Werner König
  • Bezirkskrankenhaus Kaufbeuren, Albert Putzhammer

We constantly vary in our use of language and thereby adjust to diverse social situations and conversational partners, applying language purposefully to evoke certain emotions and actions and changing lexis and grammar – intentionally or unintentionally – depending on our current mood. In addition, our use of language changes over time. This research group transfers the observations made on internal linguistic variability in modern sociolinguistics into the context of language history and asks the question of whether historical writers showed linguistic flexibility. To what extent did they adapt to the written norms of a diverse range of text types and situations? Were they consciously aware of this adaptation and were they able to actively regulate their use of language? In answering these questions, we focus less on privileged, well-educated people than on the vast majority of society, i.e. ‘ordinary writers’ who had had less schooling, many of whom were farmers or tradesmen.  

The data used in this project are drawn predominantly from letters and other personal documents written by patients at psychiatric hospitals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These institutions, founded in the context of the institutionalisation of psychiatry in the 19th century German states, withheld certain letters that were then put into the patients’ files, where they have remained largely unnoticed until today. This research project examines these letters from an interdisciplinary perspective. Firstly, we are compiling a digital, open access letter corpus with material from southern Germany (psychiatric hospital Irsee/Kaufbeuren), northern Germany and the United Kingdom (see http://copadocs.de). Thereafter, we shall analyse this corpus on the basis of the hypothesis that ‘ordinary writers’ were able to make conscious decisions about linguistic registers and the choice between different (groups of) variants.

The project is developing methods to combine functional and structural approaches to linguistic variation, linking to integrated theories in variationist linguistic research. Beyond that, the nature of the corpus creates the scope for analysing the influence of age and/or illness on language use and thus offers the potential for pioneering work in the area of historical patholinguistics. The project also has an ethical dimension, namely the examination of evaluations of texts, practices of censorship, and the legitimisation of knowledge and power.
The voices of the patients themselves, once stifled, can now be heard again.

Dr. Markus Schiegg
Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg
Department of German Linguistics
Bismarckstraße 1B
D - 91054 Erlangen

Funded by:
  • Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts
  • Elite Network of Bavaria:
  • since September 1, 2017