Wednesday Seminar: Tracing language contact and multilingual resources in the writings of three nineteenth-century women migrants

Nora Dörnbrack (Doctoral Research Fellow, ILOS) will give a talk on her in-progress PhD project on historical language contact and multilingual practices in nineteenth-century migrants' private ego-documents 

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This presentation will focus on how historical ego-documents, such as diaries, letters or notes, of migrant women can be utilized to explore multilingual resources and language contact during the Late Modern English period. My project thus combines recent research on the use of migrant ego-documents (see for example Dossena, 2008, 2016; Hickey, 2019) and discussions of British women’s multilingual resources (see further Nurmi and Pahta, 2012).

The data for this presentation are drawn from the private writings of three British women who migrated from Great Britain to North America during the nineteenth century: Mary Ann Wodrow Archbald (1762–1841), Winifred Gales (1761–1839) and Alice Hecker (material from 1861–1864). These three women shared the experience of day to day multilingual encounters, albeit in very different situations. Mary Ann Wodrow Archbald moved with her young family from a small Scottish island to a farm in rural New York State at the start of the nineteenth century, where she found the majority of her new neighbours to be Dutch-speaking immigrants. Winifred Gales, together with her husband and children, had to flee from England due to her husband’s activities in the printing business, first to Germany, where they lived for about a year, and later to the US. Finally, Alice Hecker migrated to the US, where she managed the family’s farm while her German husband, who had barely any English skills, was serving in the military.

All three women experienced language contact, albeit in different situations. According to
Schendl (2012, p. 521), these prolonged multilingual encounters would suggest, that all three
women developed multilingual resources over the course of their lifetime. If this suggestion
holds true even in a context where the three women migrants moved to a country where their
first language was the majority language, will be explored in this presentation. Furthermore,
I will discuss if and in which form the women’s multilingual resources surface in the their
writings, how we can trace the development of their language contact over time and if their
different situations resulted in different multilingual practices in writing. I will reflect on my
initial findings, challenges and opportunities of working with the above-mentioned material and possible roads ahead.


Dossena, Marina (2008). “‘Many strange and peculiar affairs:’ Description, narration and evaluation in Scottish emigrants’ letters of the 19th century.” In: Scottish Language 27, pp. 1–

Dossena, Marina (2016). “Advice for prospectors (and others). Knowledge, dissemination, power and persuasion in Late Modern English emigrants’ guides and correspondence.” In: Current Trends in Historical Sociolinguistics. Ed. by Cinzia Russi. Warsaw: De Gruyter, pp. 67–80.

Hickey, Raymond (2019). Keeping in Touch. Emigrant letters across the English-speaking
. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Nurmi, Arja and Päivi Pahta (2012). “Multilingual Practices in Women’s English Correspondence 1400 – 1800”. In: Language Mixing and Code-Switching in Writing. Approaches to Mixed-Language Written Discourse. Ed. by Mark Sebba, Shahrzad Mahootian, and Carla Jonsson. New York: Routledge, pp. 44–67.

Schendl, Herbert (2012). “Multilingualism, Code-switching, and Language Contact in Historical Sociolinguistics”. In: The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics. Ed. by Juan Manuel Hernández-Campoy and Juan Camilo Conde-Silvestre. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 520–533.


Nora Dörnbrack is a Doctoral Research Fellow in English historical linguistics at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo. Her research focuses on ego-documents of British women migrants and their linguistic resources with the aim of contributing to a ‘language history from below’. She is especially interested in historical multilingualism, language contact and longitudinal intra-writer variation. Nora completed her BA in English and American studies and Scandinavian studies at the University of Greifswald, Germany, and her MA in Scandinavian linguistics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Before starting her PhD at the University of Oslo, she worked as a Research Assistant at the Department of Language and Literature, NTNU.

Published Feb. 23, 2021 2:58 PM - Last modified Feb. 23, 2021 2:58 PM