Norwegian version of this page

Masterclass: Migrant ego-documents in Late Modern English

Learn more about the masterclass’ topic and programme, register for free and find our contact details.

Time and place: 10 May 2021, 9:15 AM - 12:00 AM, online.

Image may contain: Black-and-white, Suit, Monochrome photography, Chair, Vintage clothing.

Immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, between ca. 1915 – ca. 1920. (Source: Library of Congress, Bain News Service photograph collection, accessed: January 26, 2021).

Migrant ego-documents in focus

In recent years, interest in English-speaking migrants’ correspondence has gained traction among historical linguists. Most often, emigration from predominantly English-speaking countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was motivated by migrants’ need to better their worldly circumstances and the wish to improve their children’s future prospects. Migrants’ lives prior to their emigration had typically not been characterized by extensive schooling, and their writings – letters or journals chronicling their voyage and life in a new country and sent back to the homeland – therefore attest less to perceived norms and standard spellings. This is exactly the reason why migrants’ written texts are highly relevant for scholars who wish to contribute to a language history ‘from below’.

In his publication Keeping in touch. Emigrant letters across the English-speaking world (2019), Hickey rightly points out that “the search for emigrant letters [is] like panning for gold: one trawls through large quantities of linguistically irrelevant data in the hope that one might – unexpectedly – come across the odd nugget which makes the work worthwhile” (Hickey, 2019, p.11). It is exactly this idea that there is valuable information hidden in migrant correspondence, like nuggets of gold in a river bed, that will be explored in this masterclass. Following Hickey’s metaphor further, linguists need to embark on a time-consuming process, trawling through huge chunks of data, before hitting the occasional vein of gold. Therefore, four scholars active in the field will explore both opportunities and challenges in working with such varied material from the Late Modern English period.

This masterclass is aimed at early-career researchers, in particular PhD students in English linguistics, but anyone with a keen interest in research on migrant ego-documents or Late Modern English is highly welcome to join.

Attending the masterclass is free and open to the public.

The masterclass is hosted at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo, by Doctoral Research Fellow Nora Dörnbrack and Associate Professor Jacob Thaisen. The event is funded by the Anders Jahre Fund.


The masterclass will take place on Monday, 10 May 2021. Times indicated are for Central European Time UTC+2 (Oslo).


Opening of the masterclass

Session I: Migrant Ego-Documents in Theory

Chair: Jacob Thaisen


Examining ‘Bad Data’: Ego Documents in the History of English
Raymond Hickey, University of Limerick

The data sources and text types that historians of the English language have at their disposal for investigations depend on the literacy rates, and the text production, of the English population in different time periods. As education opportunities and therefore literacy acquisition were socially stratified until 1870 (Elementary Education Act), the written language use before 1870 must have varied greatly, i.e. if people were able to write at all (cf. Moore 2000: 58). A text category that can be found across the entire social spectrum of those who could write are so-called ego-documents. These include “sources like autobiographies, diaries, or letters”, which  contest the distinction between ‘objective’ administrative sources and ‘subjective’ self-referential texts (narratives in the 1st person) (Depkat 2019: 263; see also Elspaß 2014; Nevalainen & Tanskanen eds. 2007; Auer et al. eds. 2015).

The current lecture will consider ego documents as a data source for historians of the English language. First, the term ego documents will be defined and its merits for historical sociolinguistic research will be outlined. Second, the use of ego documents will be traced from the later Middle Ages (cf. Bergs 2005) to the Modern English period (cf. Fitzmaurice 2002; Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 2003; Dossena & Fitzmaurice eds. 2006; Dossena & Tieken-Boon van Ostade eds. 2008). As ego-documents from the lower social orders in the Late Modern English period survived in the form of pauper petitions and personal letters (Auer & Fairman 2013), our approach in discussing the data sources will be two-fold, notably (1) comparisons of linguistic findings in ego documents across social layers and (2) comparisons of linguistic findings in ego documents to other contemporary text types. This allows us to illustrate the sometimes more speech-like and informal nature of ego documents and to highlight the value of the text category for historical linguistics.

A further use of ego-documents is as data for varieties of English for which there is no other contemporary documentation. This is the case with emigrant letters, for instance (Hickey ed., 2019). Bearing all the necessary caveats in mind, one can nonetheless mine this data source for evidence of linguistic features of varieties not attested elsewhere at the same time (Hickey 2019). The analysis of emigrant letters thus represents a typical case of using ‘bad data’ to gain some insights into a language / variety enabling one to build up at least a partial profile, thus adding time depth to our knowledge.


Auer, Anita & Tony Fairman (2013) Letters of Artisans and the Labouring Poor (England, c. 1750-1835). In Paul Bennett, Martin Durrell, Silke Scheible & Richard Jason Whitt (eds.) New Methods in Historical Corpora. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 77-91.

Auer, Anita, Daniel Schreier & Richard J. Watts (eds.) (2015) Letter Writing and Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bergs, Alexander (2005) Social Networks and Historical Sociolinguistics. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter.

Depkat, Volker. 2019. Ego-documents. In Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (ed.) Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction. Volume 1: Theory and Concepts. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 262-267.

Dossena, Marina & Susan Fitzmaurice (eds.) (2006) Business and Official Correspondence: Historical Investigations. Bern: Peter Lang.

Dossena, Marina & Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds.) (2008) Studies in Late Modern English Correspondence. Methodology and Data. Bern: Peter Lang.

Elspaß, Stephan (2014) The Use of Private Letters and Diaries in Sociolinguistic Investigation. In Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy & Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre (eds.) The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 156-169.

Fitzmaurice, Susan (2002) The Familiar Letter in Early Modern English. A Pragmatic Approach. Benjamins: John Benjamins.

Hickey, Raymond 2019. ‘Mining vernacular correspondence for linguistic insights’, in: Hickey (ed.), pp. 1-24.

Hickey, Raymond (ed.) (2019) Keeping in Touch. Emigrant Letters across the English-speaking World. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Moore, Charles. 2000. Understanding the Industrial Revolution. London/New York: Routledge.

Nevalainen, Terttu & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (2003) Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman.

Nevalainen, Terttu & Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen (eds.) (2007) Letter Writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Coffee/Tea Break


Historical sociolinguistic and heritage linguistic perspectives on ego-documents
Anita Auer, University of Lausanne

The lecture will focus on ego-documents, i.e. “sources like autobiographies, diaries, or letters” (Depkat 2019), in a migration context. Particular focus will be put on methodological merits and challenges from a historical sociolinguistic and a heritage linguistic perspective. For instance, while emigrant letters can be labelled so-called ‘bad data’ (cf. Auer et al. 2015), these sources can also allow us to gain insight into vernacular speech (cf. Hickey 2019). Moreover, ego-documents can shed light on language maintenance and shift on a personal and community level (in combination with other sources) as well as identity preservation/creation of a writer. The merits and challenges related to ego-documents will be illustrated through examples from different languages. 


Auer, Anita, Catharina Peersman, Simon Pickl, Gijsbert Rutten & Rik Vosters (2015) Historical Sociolinguistics: the Field and its Future. Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics Volume 1(1): 1–12.

Depkat, Volker (2019) Ego-documents. In Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (ed.), Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction. Volume 1: Theory and Concepts. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 262-267.

Hickey, Raymond (2019) Mining Vernacular Correspondence for Linguistic Insights. In Raymond Hickey (ed.), Keeping in Touch. Emigrant Letters across the English-speaking World. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1-24.


Discussion – Session I


Lunch Break

Session II: Migrant Ego-Documents in Practice

Chair: Anita Auer


“And me at the age that I am”: Scotticisms in Emigrants’ Letters
Marina Dossena, University of Bergamo

In this presentation I will discuss the letters sent to her parents by a Scottish woman who had emigrated to Argentina with her brothers in the mid-nineteenth century. After placing the letters in the context of Scottish emigrant correspondence, I will focus on the usage of this specific informant, in order to provide a case study in which syntax, vocabulary and spelling contribute to the definition of the writer’s identity. In addition, the letters will be discussed as a valuable source for the investigation of pragmatic moves in Late Modern times, shedding light on the ways in which the parent-child relationship is both maintained and modified through linguistic choices. 


Coffee/Tea Break


‘A beginning and an end of it’. The transition from eighteenth to nineteenth century English as represented in ego-documents from the foundation of the penal colony of New South Wales’.
Robert McColl Millar, University of Aberdeen

The nineteenth century was a time of imperial expansion for Britain. In the later part of the century, this powerful impetus was driven towards the development of exploitation colonies with low levels of British settlement (this exploitation was often hidden by attempts to portray colonisation as a ‘civilising mission’). From well before the period, however, colonies where large numbers of British people settled remained a central part of imperial strategy.

With the successful rebellion of most of British North America in the late eighteenth century, new territories needed to be exploited. Most striking of these new settler colonies was what became Australia. Originally founded as a penal colony, its early European settlement was made up of a small, largely transient, military caste and a majority of involuntary migrants.

This presentation will consider the language used in diaries and memoirs of a range of largely young men from different social backgrounds – a convict, a marine private, an ‘ordinary’ sailor, officers and a medical doctor – and geographical origins – from England, Scotland, Ireland and the United States – who were all present in what became Sydney when the New South Wales penal colony was founded.

A central finding will be that the expected differences in writing Standard English between people of different social and geographical backgrounds, with concomitant levels of education, are not as marked as we might extent. To what extent did this level of variety continue into the nineteenth century, whose English must at least in part have been formed from that used at the very end of the previous century?


Discussion – Session II

16.45 Closing remarks


Registration is closed.


If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Nora Dörnbrack:

Jacob Thaisen:

Published Jan. 20, 2021 1:17 PM - Last modified Apr. 28, 2022 10:44 AM