English Pauper Letters in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond

On the Variability and Evolution of a New Text Type


  • Anne-Christine Gardner University of Lausanne, Switzerland




formulaic language, historical sociolinguistics, pauper letters, self-corrections, text types


This article explores a new subtype of vernacular correspondence emerging in the early eighteenth century, the pauper letter, providing a textual classification of this new text type and an account of its variability and evolution into the nineteenth century. The study is based on 189 letters sent between 1730 and 1834 by the poor applying for support from their parish of legal settlement, with a focus on the potential influence of the form and language of petitions in the realisation of five features which can be found in pauper letters (voice, greeting, petition-element, closing formula and self-reference). From a diachronic perspective, letter-style writing was preferred already in the earliest pauper letters, and the presence of petition-style features further decreases over time. In consequence, pauper letters should be classified as letters rather than petitions. The analysis of inter-writer variation across pauper letters and different social groups shows that in pauper letters there is significant stylistic variation and that the writers employ strategies, in particular self-reference, to index their social roles of applicant and parishioner or to highlight the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, as they appeal to the responsibility of the parish officials to offer assistance. In contrast, in 14 letters by parish officials and advocates writing on behalf of the poor formulaic sequences are generally more uniform than in pauper letters. Stylistic choices by writers with more experience (including paupers) tend to be oriented towards majority usage patterns and show an affinity with stylistic expressions also attested in business correspondence. A study on intra-writer variation reveals that individual encoders have a fixed repertoire of formulaic expressions expected in closing formulae and self-references. Owing to their limited schooling opportunities, paupers typically only acquired incomplete knowledge of conventional expressions and their appropriateness. Self-corrections by paupers in closing formulae and self-references support earlier findings that formulaic sequences were often learned through incidental oral transmission and stored and processed as a whole.


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27. 12. 2023

How to Cite

Gardner, A.-C. (2023). English Pauper Letters in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond: On the Variability and Evolution of a New Text Type. Linguistica, 63(1-2), 301-336. https://doi.org/10.4312/linguistica.63.1-2.301-336