Polity Press

Copyright © Peter Burke 1993

The right of Peter Burke to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 1993 by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers

Reprinted 2005, 2007

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1 The Social History of Language

2 ‘Heu Domine, Adsunt Turcae’: a Sketch for a Social History of Post-Medieval Latin

3 Language and Identity in Early Modern Italy

4 The Art of Conversation in Early Modern Europe

5 Notes for a Social History of Silence in Early Modern Europe




Although learning languages has long been a hobby of mine, it was only in the late 1970s that I began to read the sociolinguists and to think seriously about the problems of incorporating language into social and cultural history. I soon discovered that other British historians were thinking on similar lines – Raphael Samuel, for instance, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Jonathan Steinberg. Discussions with them and conferences in Dublin, Cambridge and Brighton helped me to formulate these problems more precisely, and to reflect on possible methods of approaching them. Working with Ruth Finnegan on the series of Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture increased my awareness of the variety of oral styles. Most important of all has been the dialogue with Roy Porter in the course of our editing two volumes of essays on the social history of language (not to mention planning a third).

Written originally as conference or seminar papers, these essays are deliberately exploratory rather than definitive, an attempt to reconnoitre terrain which the next generation may well cultivate more intensively. I have taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by this collected edition to revise or develop the argument in some places, to add more examples, and to take account of recent work in both history and linguistics, as well as eliminating repetitions and making the system of references uniform.

I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for permission to reprint chapter 1, and to the Center for Kulturforskning, Aarhus University, for permission to reprint chapter 3. The essay on silence will be delivered as my ‘farewell lecture’ at the University of Nijmegen in 1993 and published by the university press there, while the essay on conversation appears in print for the first time.

The international Republic of Letters, more effective than ever in the age of jets and word processors, has been extremely supportive of this project. I have learned a good deal from the discussions following talks on these themes in different parts of the world (including the polyglot environments of Helsinki and Vienna). I am especially grateful to Rudolf Dekker for the information – on Dutch, on Latin, on silence – which he has sent me over the years. Chapter 2 in particular has benefited from the advice and the references offered by an international group of scholars, including Rino Avesani, Derek Beales, Dietrich Briesemeister, Zweder von Martels, Robert Muchembled, Eva Österberg, Roy Porter, Nigel Spivey, and Joe Trapp. I am most grateful to them all. My wife, Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, read the draft chapters with a critical eye and drew my attention to some eighteenth-century texts. She has also initiated me into life in a bilingual environment. The book is dedicated to her.