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"I never have time for writing during the week". Vernacular writing in Västerbotten in the late 19th century

Research project The goal of this editing project is to publish and comment on vernacular writing from the first stage of mass literacy in a critical edition. The editing project is framed within the research field of the social history of literacy.

The manuscripts of 260 pages consist of diary notes and song books from 1878–1901 from northern Sweden – written in a blend of dialect and standard Swedish. The research field of social history is an expanding field within the Nordic countries and the rest of Europe, but still less developed in a Swedish context. This critical edition of vernacular writing is most valuable in studies of language standards, identification and modernization and especially for research in historical sociolinguistics. The texts constitute important data for future sociolinguistic studies aiming at representing an alternative language history ”from below”.

Head of project

Ann-Catrine Edlund
Other position

Project overview

Project period:

2015-01-01 2016-01-31


The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, 2015: SEK 1,012,000

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

Research area

Modern languages

Project description

The goal of this editing project is to publish and comment on vernacular writing in a critical edition. The volume is also directed towards the public at large. The manuscripts are written by the women on a farm in Storkågeträsk in Northern Västerbotten and consists of diary notes and three songbooks from 1878–1901, in total 260 handwritten pages.

Since the texts are mainly written in a blend of dialect and standard Swedish, they must also be translated into contemporary standard written Swedish. There is also detailed commentaries on the historical, social and geographical contexts of the texts, and there will also be a commentary on the historical vernacular literacy context where the texts have emerged.

To secure the interest of the public at large, each and every year of the diary is commenced by a short introduction and an artistic drawing to guide the reader in to the events of that particular year. The volume will also comprise a CD where selected parts from the diary notes are recorded in contemporary dialect (in total 55 minutes).

The outline of the 400 pages volume is as follows:
1. The village Storkågeträsk. 50 pages.
1.1. The geographical context: History, agriculture and forestry, place-names and maps
1.2. The social context: The farm, portraits, marriage patterns, religious life
2. Vernacular Literacies in Sweden. 20 pages.
2.1. Mass literacy in the 19th century
2.2. The linguistic situation in Northern Sweden
3. Presentation of the manuscripts. 10 pages.
4. Diary notes with translation and artistic drawings. 250 pages.
5. Three songbooks with translation. 55 pages.
6. Indexes. 15 pages.
6.1. Word index
6.2. Place name index
6.3. Person index

Associate professor Ann-Catrine Edlund is the main editor. There is an editorial board linked to the project with both scientific and archival competences: Professor Lars-Erik Edlund, Umeå University, PhD student Ulf Lundström, Skellefteå museum and archivist Marcus Brännström, Västerviks visarkiv. Two artists have already completed their contributions: Maria Sundström for the drawings, Marianne Folkedotter for the recording of the CD. The edition is to be published in a monograph series by Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien (The Royal Academy of Gustav Adolf).

The editing project is framed within the research field of the social history of literacy. The field represents the new history from below where individual experiences of social change is put forward and common people are regarded as agents rather than recipients (Lyons 2013:16f.). The period of study is the long 19th century when mass literacy was achieved in the Western world thanks to literacy campaigns (Vincent 2000). Ordinary people could for the first time in history engage in vernacular literacy practices such as diary writing and song book writing. The focus in the field is particularly on writing practices, since reading practices already have been thoroughly studied by cultural historians (Lyons 201:2). Vernacular literacy practices are characterized by being self-generated, voluntary, creative and where learning and practice are intertwined (Barton & Hamilton 2012; Barton 2010). Some of the most prominent theoretical frameworks in the field are: New Literacy studies (e.g. Baynham & Prinsloo 2009), historical sociolinguistics (e.g. Vandenbussche et al. 2004) and Actor-network theory (eg. Latour 2005). Two major research issues can be distinguished where social agency and literacy are regarded from two different perspectives: What do the literacy practices do within peoples lives? What does people do with literacy? These major issues can be further divided into issues of modernization, identification, literacy learning and issues of language standards.

Research in the Nordic countries and Europe
In the Nordic countries the research field has been expanding during the last 6 years through interdisciplinary collaborations in literacy networks and one Nordic project. I have myself been involved in the network "The Common People and the Processes of Literacy in the Nordic Countries" (2008–2010 based in Helsinki), and have conducted a network "Diachronic Perspectives on Literacy in Sweden and other Nordic Countries" (2009–2012 financed by RJ). The project "Reading and Writing from Below. Toward a New Social History of Literacy in the Nordic Sphere during the Long 19th century" is still running (2011–2014). The scientific outcome has so far been Nordic and international conferences and several publications (Edlund ed. 2012; Edlund & Haugen eds. 2013; Edlund, Edlund & Haugen eds. 2014; Kuismin & Driscoll eds. 2013). Research in Sweden within the field has mainly been conducted within historical science (e.g. Liljewall 1995, 2001, 2007; cf. Larsson 1992) and only to a small extent within (socio)linguistics (Edlund 2007, 2012; Edlund 2005).

In European research the sociolinguistic dimensions of historical vernacular literacies have been highlighted with the intention of presenting an alternative language history from below. Tony Fairman describes the shift in the object of study - from printed sources by the elite to handwritten sources by ordinary people: ”Linguists describe language primarily from written data. Therefore, the historical socio-linguistic task now is no longer to describe how only privileged minorities wrote their Standards, but how writers of all social classes wrote. In doing that, socio-linguists describe languages” (Fairman 2012:224). Studies in historical sociolinguistics have been performed in Finnish: Nordlund 2007, Norwegian: Fet 1995, Danish: Sandersen 2003, 2007, Italian Spitzer 1921, German: Grosse 1990; Mihm 1998, Elspass 2002, 2007, English: Fairman 2007a, 2007b, French-Canadian: Martineau 2007 and Flemish: Vandenbussche 2002, Vandenbussche et al. 2004.

The edition is most valuable in regards of both issues of language standards, identification and modernization. The texts, with their unique blend of dialect and standard Swedish, constitute important data for future sociolinguistic studies aiming at representing an alternative language history from below. It is an important complement to the published Swedish peasant diaries (see Larsson 1992; e.g. Boman 1992; Svenske 1987). For research in historical sociolinguistics, the existence of critical editions is absolutely crucial and this edition is implemented within a neo-philological tradition (c. Saenger 1997; Carlquist 2002, 2004). Issues of identification and social change can also be studied since the emerging vernacular literacy practices during the first period of mass literacy brought new opportunities for identification for ordinary people (Liljewall 2007, 2013; Barton 2009:38).

The diary notes also constitute a unique historical source in the study of modernization processes due to its structure and content. Peasant diaries is sometimes called weather-and-wind-diaries since they usually only consist of brief notes (Hedegaard 1995). In this particular diary, written by two women, there is however a narrative structure where detailed stories are folded out – everyday events and gossip. It almost resembles a chronicle where the village is in the centre and all sorts of social events are being reported: births, deaths, illness, religion, marriages, dishes and other everyday events.

Although writing in song book were a most common practice in Sweden, these are the first song books to be published in print from the long 19th century (a song book from the 17th century is published in Lagercrantz 1946–47).

The song books are valuable for both linguistics and ethnomusicology. Very little research has so far been performed on song books in Sweden (c.f. Ternhag 2008 ed.). Apart from the scientific value, the edition is also of great public value since the texts are translated and detailed commentaries are presented.

The editing project started already in 2011 and has now reached a phase where substantial editorial work is needed to fulfil the project. The estimation is that one year of editorial work will be sufficient.

Completed editorial assignments
The manuscripts has been transcribed/copied out, translated and annotated with 1100 extensive footnotes regarding persons, place-names, ethnological details and historical facts.

Remaining editorial assignments
The remaining editorial assignments are: to proof-read the transcribed texts and check translation; to write the commentary chapters 1–3 (90 pages); to write the introductions to each and every year in the diary notes; to finalize the artistic drawings; to aggregate indexes. The proof-reading is a time-consuming task since the texts are written in dialect without any punctuation - therefore the texts need to be checked letter by letter. The commentary chapters will be elaborated by the help of the extensive footnotes. (Only some of the footnotes will remain - they will be incorporated in the commentary chapters.)

2 months. Proof-reading and translation check.
4 months. Commentary chapters 1–3.
2 weeks. Introduction to diary notes.
1 month. Indexes.
2 months. Copy editing and final editing with KGAA.
1 month. Research stay at Helsinki University.

The editing project has so far been financed by Umeå University (the main editor), Skellefteå museum (transcripts and translation), Kungl. Vitterhetsakademien (the artistic elements: the CD and the drawings). The publication of the volume is fully financed by the Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien.

During the one year sabbatical period I will stay one month as a visiting researcher at the department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies at Helsinki University. The research field of historical literacy is already well established in Finland. A variety of vernacular literacy practices has been detected and a huge amount of data has been collected and studied from multidisciplinary perspectives (e.g. Nordlund 2007; Laitinen & Nordlund 2012, 2013; Salmi-Niklander 2013; Kuismin 2013; Mikkola 2013).

The main purpose of the stay is to benefit from the Finnish research experience from the historical literacy field with the aim to initiate and develop a linguistic research project where the edited volume will constitute an important part of the research data. The discussions will also concern viable ways to make an inventory of and detect additional Swedish data of historical vernacular literacy practices. The discussions will be undertaken with already established research contacts: Docent Taru Nordlund, Prof. em. Lea Laitinen; Professor Jan-Ola Östman; and historians and literature scholars within the field: Docent Anna Kuismin, Adjunct Professor Kirsti Salmi-Niklander; PhD Kati Mikkola.