“Just a few lines to let you know”. Formulaic language and personalization strategies in Great War trench letters written by semi-literate Scottish soldiers


Abstract – Historical correspondence has been the object of increasing interest in the field of English linguistics; such research interests, in the case of vernacular letters, offer a valuable insight into language use seen from below. The current article examines a corpus of Great War trench letters written by George Murray and Thomas Clark Russell, two semi-literate Scottish soldiers. The study aims to identify and analyse the formulaic language and personalization strategies used by the soldier letter writers. The letters were transcribed to create a corpus of 94,477 running words. The corpus was examined by using a discourse historical approach (DHA) to critical discourse analysis (CDA). This approach allows an in-depth analysis of the texts, viewed as embedded in the context in which they occur. The letters were divided into segments (i. e. the opening formulae, the text body and the closing formulae) from which frequency word lists and concordances were extracted by using Sketch Engine. Findings show that opening salutations are followed by formulaic expressions, effectively creating a bridge between the salutation and the letter’s main content, and that the use of opening salutations and formulaic expressions varied depending upon the intended recipient of the letter as well as on the nature of the encoder’s relationship with the addressee. The pronouns identified were examined in context, focusing on their use with modal verbs. The analysis also revealed that modal verbs expressing epistemic modality were the most frequently occurring with pronouns in the corpus.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v31p111

Keywords: formulaic expressions; personalisation strategies; trench letters; historical discourse analysis; historical pragmatics


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