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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
Photo of Laura Wright

Laura Wright is a historical sociolinguist and Professor of English Language at the University of Cambridge.

She works on the history of Standard English and the London dialect, including mixed-language texts written in Anglo-Norman, Medieval Latin and Middle English, as well as 17th, 18th and 19th century London English. 

She has published on historical codeswitching, the development of Standard English, and on the fate of London English taken to North America and elsewhere, including the East India Company island of St Helena, South Atlantic.

Her recent publications include ‘Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names’ (OUP/British Academy, 2020), a monograph on the history of British house names, and a forthcoming title on lexical sociolinguistics, ‘The Social Life of Words: a Historical Approach’ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2023). 

Laura will be presenting ‘'Aloof's Ramp', 'Jardin de Glynn': Gibraltar's street names and an eighteenth-century Western Mediterranean spatial practice’ with Daniel Weston (University of Hong Kong) at the Cambridge Language Sciences Annual Symposium on 24 November 2022. This will be part of a research dialogue on 'Language, culture and identity: perspectives from historical linguistics and sociolinguistics’ with Esther-Miriam Wagner (The Woolf Institute).

My research sets out to …. 
I live in the past. Manuscripts are my friends – along with old newspapers, old adverts, old tin can labels (tin cans feature in ‘The Social Life of Words’) but my main sources over the years have been medieval manuscripts kept in archives. Which are mostly multilingual: Medieval Latin/Anglo-Norman French/Middle English – you have to look long and hard to find a monolingual document of any length. 

So I suppose my research sets out to understand everyday language as it was used in all sorts of circumstances, how it was used at a given time and place and how it changed. Who talked to who, where and for what purpose. Trade is often the answer, but so are the activities of going shopping, eating, laughing, stealing, dressing up, flirting, singing and insulting – the things we talked about. For this kind of endeavour, languages are often irrelevant. Morphemes and words cross political boundaries.

What does your research involve you actually doing on a daily basis and in which locations?
Calling up manuscripts in an archive or library. The older the document the easier; handwriting gets harder to read from the early 1500s onwards, and Medieval Latin is usually easier than Middle English. Thirteenth century writing is a delight. But data can come from anywhere. For ‘Sunnyside: a Sociolinguistic History of British House Names’ it came from signs on gateposts and fanlights. For ‘The Social Life of Words’: data for slave-names came from Londoners’ lost-dog advertisements as the two overlapped. For the adjective maroon as used of the eye-colour of early twentieth-century Americans with SubSaharan African heritage, data came from police bureaux identity cards. 

For gendering of perfume in the Anglophone world by a few Victorian London perfumers (ie for women only, at least when sold as ‘perfume’), data came from perfume advertisements in ephemera such as theatre programmes. Before the 1850s perfume had nothing at all to do with sexual allure and was sold to men too, but Londoner Piesse’s perfumes then started referencing music-hall songs in their titles – which were saucy: ‘Kiss Me Quick’. So the custom arose, aimed at the lower end of the social scale (at ‘our gents and misses’, as Rimmel’s ads put it). It conditions our behaviour still.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Perhaps recasting the history of Standard English to include the mixed-language variety which preceded it and propelled its evolution – or rather the fact that so many other historical linguists have joined me in accepting the relevance of mixed-language writing, including lexicographers at the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’.Mixed-language was the result of the loss in the 1370s of Anglo-Norman French as a language taught in childhood, causing its wordstock to become absorbed into English. For the next hundred years or so scribes in Britain wrote in a grammatical Latin matrix populated with this English-that-had-absorbed-Anglo-Norman. We now call this kind of English-that-has-absorbed-Anglo-Norman the English language.

Tell me about your latest research. 
Well yesterday I was emailing back and forth with colleagues about the etymology of campshed, for a paper I’m publishing in The London Journal on words for London wharves. It’s a London word, it didn’t standardise (kempshot, campsheathing), and you can still see signs on the Thames foreshore warning you that there’s a campshed extending into the river at that point. It means the boarded frontage holding back the riverbank, or holding back barge-beds in later centuries, and it’s likely to be from Old English camb ‘comb, ridge’ + Old English scid ‘split wood’ – but I suggest influenced by Old Norse kambr ‘comb, ridge’ + Old Norse skith ‘split wood’ during Cnut’s reign in the early eleventh century. A handful of watery nonstandard London words like this that don’t occur in numbers elsewhere and which have direct cognates in Old Norse still register, I think, a Viking’s-eye view of the town from the river.

What aspect of your work is most exciting to you right now?
Lexical sociolinguistics: how social information becomes encoded in words, and how words travel around the globe, with concomitant shift in social properties along with change of place.

In particular, the unique situation in Gibraltar’s streetscape; how one set of speakers knows a public space by one name, and another set, by another, and how that linguistic division persisted over generations, recording family networks that stretched from Italy to Morocco to Menorca to Portugal.

I hope my research will lead to… 
The hope that people can see that languages and politics are not the same thing. For example you can abhor the current war in Ukraine without disliking the Russian language. Maybe we all suffer from prejudice about the way people speak but it’s good to be aware of it. 

However the main thing I hope my work leads to is enjoyable surprise: for example I found it surprising to discover that housename Sunnyside had ancient antecedents in Nordic land-division, or that a word marketed by engineer George Ewart of the Euston Road in the 1880s, califont, is now the calefon of Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay (and New Zealanders have recently diversified califont to mean a very small water-heater suitable for baches or cribs – cabins in remote beauty-spots). I hope others find this kind of thing entertaining – learning about who we are and how we got here. 

The theme of this year’s Symposium is ‘Language Diversity’. How does this relate to your work? 
Sociolinguistics past and present studies the fact that all language is diverse. We encode what matters in our society in our speech. In the case of Britain, we still mark in our speech the social division that was caused by the Anglo-Norman colonisation of 1066, so that native speakers can immediately hear whether someone is of the middle to upper social classes (speaking with a Received Pronunciation accent) or of the lower-middle to lower social classes (speaking with a regional accent and regional dialect). Perfumer Piesse depended on this, replicating lower-class speech and music-hall habits in his adverts to create a new teenage market. Why diversity is important: language marks terrain – whereabouts on the planet a speaker comes from – and we are territorial mammals.

In your opinion, what does language diversity mean for the past, present and future of humankind?
Well language diversity is the norm, along with biological diversity. Language shapes what we do and so sometimes our present-day choices are due to language-change in the past. Anglo-Norman lexis is still our high-register vocabulary. We still avoid the word genteel (consider whether you self-identify as genteel, although you probably are) as social contexts shifted from the aristocracy to their servants. We still know that dogs are prototypically called Fido and Rover, meaning ‘Spanish pirates’ to generations close enough to the Spanish Armada to remember the raiding behaviour but far enough away to forget the fear. But we’ve forgotten that we once called our enslaved people Fido and Rover too. In the future: we will mark whatever is important in our society in our speech. In recent centuries that has been region, social class, gender, age, religion, wealth, criminality, race, servitude – but this is an open class and varies from society to society. It will keep changing.

What we do

Cambridge Language Sciences is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Our virtual network connects researchers from five schools across the university as well as other world-leading research institutions. Our aim is to strengthen research collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines in order to address large-scale multi-disciplinary research challenges relating to language research.