A drop-down menu for languages? Historical-sociolinguistic research in the archives

by Andreas Krogull

Archives are wonderful places. They allow us not only to, quite literally, touch the past, but also to learn a lot about languages and how these were used centuries ago. As a historical sociolinguist working on the history of Dutch, I have visited countless archives over the past few years, mostly in the Netherlands, in order to collect data. Following the research tradition that is known as language history ‘from below’, I am particularly interested in handwritten sources from the private domain, such as letters and diaries. These first-person accounts give us unique insights into ‘ordinary’ language use, which has been neglected in traditional history writing, but can still be found in the archives.

Archives, in my experience, may differ in size, ranging from large national collections to smaller municipal or even intimate house archives. They may also differ in level of modernity. If you are lucky, you will be able to search for documents in fully digitised databases. Occasionally, though, you will find yourself flipping through hard-copy catalogues, which feels like time-travelling to a long-gone century itself. The essence of historical-sociolinguistic ‘fieldwork’ in the archives, however, is very often quite similar. Most Dutch archives are affiliated to a national database simply called, which is an extremely useful online tool to browse through their collections. This system allows researchers and laypeople to filter for categories such as ‘Families and people’ or ‘Religion and philosophy’, to define the period, and to search for keywords such as ‘letter’ or ‘diary’, names and places.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no search query for languages, or a drop-down menu with ‘Dutch’, ‘German’, ‘French’ or ‘Latin’ to choose from. What seems to be an essential, if not the most essential feature of a written document (for us linguists at least), appears to be far less important for archivists. In a way, the catalogues of Dutch archives seem to imply that documents stored in the Netherlands are normally written in Dutch. Not only is this highly questionable, certainly from a historical perspective, it also reminds us of the ‘one nation–one language’ ideology that emerged around 1800. Very rarely, a nota bene adds that a certain document is ‘in German’, or ‘partially in French’ – clearly a deviation from the (monolingual) norm. In reality, however, multilingualism was not uncommon at all in the history of the Netherlands, and there are plenty of non-Dutch texts in Dutch archives.

From a practical point of view, spending long days in reading rooms, I have more than once wished that archives would include at least basic linguistic information about their documents. At the same time, I am aware of the challenges and problems this can bring. As part of my research on the MEITS project, I am currently investigating 19th-century language practices in the Dutch-German borderlands, where languages and varieties were not always clearly separable, and language contact was a frequently occurring phenomenon. Any linguistic categorisation, for example in the form of a drop-down menu, would in fact be difficult. What about texts with regional, local and non-standard features, code-switching, or even ‘mixed’ languages?

However convenient and timesaving linguistic categories might be for researchers working on multilingualism, they would necessarily lead to a simplified and hasty way of putting archival documents into ‘neat’ (and potentially inaccurate) boxes. Moreover, I believe that such a categorisation would only reinforce the persistent ideologies of monolingualism and standard languages, which, as historical-sociolinguistic research has repeatedly shown, is not necessarily in line with actual language production, especially in more complex spaces such as borderlands. But besides that, the absence of linguistic information can also lead to interesting discoveries, when you stumble across a document that you had never thought of. In fact, it feels truly rewarding to find something unexpected in the overwhelming haystacks that archival collections can be. Linguists, go to the archives and find that needle!

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