The Lower Classes, Scripturality, and the History of Language. An Interdisciplinary Balance

International symposium at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

6 and 7 November 2014

Audimax: Hörsaal K

Writing is a prestigious cultural technique which usually requires years of practice to be mastered. Its products are often regarded as model texts of a historical language. Learning and exercising this technique used to be reserved to a few specialists during the Middle Ages, and even after medieval times, for a long time it was a very small, select layer of society that used to communicate in written form. The language histories of the Romance (and other) languages are therefore mainly based on the written records an educated elite.

Only as recently as the 17th century reading material becomes available to broader sections of society in the form of chapbooks (known as Bibliothèque bleue in France, Literatura de Cordel in Spain and Portugal, Volksbücher in Germany, Skillingtryck in Sweden etc.), but there is a lot of uncertainty with respect to their reception. However, also due to the expansion of the education system during the 18th and 19th centuries the ability to read and write spreads to the lower classes.
Yet, their hand-written documents commonly remained overlooked in the historiography of language histories. The demand for discovering and analysing sources that were written by the lower classes themselves was indeed often stated, but - with the exception of Vulgar Latin – heeded only very sporadically.

Our aim is to present projects and methods that try to fill this gap in the historiography of the history of languages, namely the language of the lower classes. The following guiding principles and questions are to be addressed:

  •  What was the actual state of alphabetisation and literacy in the lower classes in the modern era?
  • What connections are there between the (written) verbal forms of the upper classes and the lower classes?
  • Which language models do the lower classes use for orientation?
  • Are there independent developments in the lower classes, or are the linguistic forms to be regarded as imperfect acquisitions from the upper class ("Gesunkenes Kulturgut")?
  • What impact did the development of media have (presence and availability of books, paper, postal services)?
  • What sources for the written language use by the lower class can be found?
  • Which edition techniques are useful for lower class texts (principles of diplomatic transliteration, methods of digital indexing, xml-editions, tagging, etc.)?


The conference will have an interdisciplinary design, since these questions can only be answered in cooperation between the fields of Literature, History, Anthropology and Linguistics. In addition, it is our concern to maintain the Romanistic tradition of cross-linguistic comparison, as we deal with the developments in several Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) and their contact languages as well as in German.