21 February 2022: Tamsin Blaxter (Oxford): “What maps can tell us about grammar: enriching historical linguistics with evidence from geolinguistics and sociolinguistics”


Geolinguistics/dialectology, sociolinguistics and historical linguistics are often thought of as fields trying to answer different questions. As dialectologists we might ask “Where do people speak like that?” As sociolinguists we might ask “Which groups of people speak like that?” And as historical linguists we might ask “When and how did this way of speaking change?” However, the reality is that these questions are not as separable as they first sound. A change in the grammar must happen first in some location, and in the speech of some particular group. A change that happens due to contact, or one introduced through education, will progress quite differently through the population than one happening due to language-internal processes alone. Some places or populations might be more or less receptive to change than others, affecting the time-course of changes. As a result, the methods and data of geolinguistics and sociolinguistics can often help us to better understand the when, how and why of historical linguistics.

In this talk I will use examples from the history of Norwegian to show how drawing maps of how morphosyntactic changes spread the country—as well as exploring how changes spread between social classes—can help us better understand why those changes happened, and how they relate to one another. I will focus particularly on changes to the case system: the loss of the nominative case, and the transformation of the genitive case.


You can re-watch the lecture here:



Tamsin Blaxter did her PhD at Cambridge on variation and change in the history of Norwegian, focusing on the proposed relationship between grammatical simplification and intensive contact between speakers of different languages (Trudgill 2011). An important strand of this work was methodological, and focused on how we can take the noisy, unbalanced data of historical texts and use it map out the ways that language changes spread in space over time. She has since developed this strand further in a Research Fellowship at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, culminating in a forthcoming book with Wiley, Diachronic dialectology: new methods and case studies in medieval Norwegian.

Other parts of her work also focus on quantitative approaches in variationist linguistics, often centred on methodological innovations. These include work on Modern English dialects at the Bristol Centre for Linguistics, work on language variation on Twitter as part of the Tweetolectology project at Cambridge, and collaborative work using approaches from statistical physics to model language change.

She currently works as a researcher at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment.