Prof Laura Wright, Faculty of English



Biographical Information

I'm a historical sociolinguist.  I work 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. I have published on historical codeswitching, on 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.  I was part of the Finnish Academy-funded "Multicultural Practices in the History of Written English" project 2012-2016.   My monograph Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names, OUP/British Academy, 2020, includes Scottish Gaelic as well as Medieval Latin/Anglo-Norman and earlier states of English; and my edited volume with 19 contributors The Multilingual Origins of Standard English, Mouton de Gruyter, 2020,  rewrites the history of Standard English.  In 2021 with Caroline Barron I edited The Jubilee Book of London, 1376-1387: an edition of Trinity College Cambridge, Ms O.3.11 folios 133-157, London Record Society; and my most recent monograph, in Blackwell's 'Language in Society' series, is The Social Life of Words: a Historical Approach, 2023, outlining lexical sociolinguistics as a field of study.  I have a long-held interest in lexis to do with the River Thames, the topic of my DPhil thesis and article 'On Words for London Wharves', 2022, The London Journal.  My current lexical sociolinguistic concern is the streetnames of Gibraltar, and I have an article forthcoming with Daniel Weston on the topic in the Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, entitled 'Gibraltar’s bilingual streetnames as evidence of the Western Mediterranean spatial practice of eighteenth-century civilian fort-servicers'.  

Research Interests

The history of the English language; the history of London English; the history of London place-names; the development of Standard English; historical codeswitching between Anglo-Norman, Medieval Latin and Middle English; lexical sociolinguistics. Most of my work has been on the language of 14th and 15th century MSS produced in London (in particular, the make-up of mixed-language business writing).  I have also published on the English of 16th century London court records, on the language of 17th and early 18th century slaves and settlers on the Island of St Helena, South Atlantic; on the language of 18th century London trade-cards and servants' bills - in particular, those of fireworkers and their fireworks, the linguistic conventions adopted by servants and masters when advertising for work, and the effects of Victorian technological developments on colour terms and perfume names.  I'm particularly interested in the social connotations of housenames and streetnames across time and space.

Areas of Graduate Supervision

I have supervised doctoral work on English in Gibraltar, Hong Kong, North Carolina, and St Helena, South Atlantic.  I'm happy to receive enquiries about any of the above, especially lexical sociolinguistics.


Selected Publications

My work centres around the history of London speakers.  I considered Middle English words gleaned from multilingual civic documents from the late medieval period, especially those of London Bridge: 

Wright, Laura.  1996.  Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. Oxford University Press: Clarendon. 

Wright, Laura.  1997.  Medieval Latin, Anglo-Norman and Middle English in a civic London text: an inquisition of the River Thames, 1421. In Steward Gregory and David A. Trotter (eds.). De Mot en Mot Aspects of Medieval Linguistics. Cardiff: University of Wales Press and the Modern Humanities Research Association.  223-260.       

This led to co- editing some of the medieval London records:

Harding, Vanessa and Laura Wright (eds.). 1995.  London Bridge: Selected Accounts and Rentals, 1381–1538.  London Record Society 31.  

Barron, Caroline M. and Laura Wright (eds.). 2021. The London Jubilee Book, 1376-1387: an edition of Trinity College Cambridge, MS O.3.11, folios 133-157.  London: London Record Society for 2020.

As these kinds of business records, civic and commercial, were written in a non-random mix of Middle English, Medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman that was used all over the British Isles, with mixed Latin/vernacular counterparts on the Contintent, I tried to figure out some of its structural properties.  This mixed-language system was the convention for accounting and journal-keeping for several centuries but it didn’t have a name, probably because it was just regarded as the way modern Latin was written for business purposes at the time:

Wright, Laura. On variation in medieval mixed-language business writing.In Herbert Schendl and Laura Wright (eds.). 2011. Code-switching in Early English.  Berlin:  Mouton. 191-218.                 

Wright, Laura. On non-integrated vocabulary in the mixed-language Accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral, 1315-1405. In Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White (eds.). 2017.  Latin in Medieval Britain. London: British Academy. 272-298.       

I realised that mixed-language writing had an effect on the rise of Standard English, although it wasn’t until 2020 that I traced the prevalent textbook explanation (which is that Standard English stemmed from an East Midland dialect) back to Kington-Oliphant (1873), who thought it was due to the influence of the poetry of Robert Manning of Bourne in Rutland.  But Standard English didn’t start in Rutland.  Rather, it was the eventual result of a shift in fifteenth-century mixed-language ratios, so that English became the grammatical matrix instead of Medieval Latin, absorbing Anglo-Norman vocabulary:

Wright, Laura. A multilingual approach to the history of Standard English.In Päivi Pahta, Janne Skaffari and Laura Wright (eds.). 2018.  Multilingual Practices in Language History: English and Beyond.  Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 339-358. 

Wright, Laura (ed.). 2020. The Multilingual Origins of Standard English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Moving to the sixteenth century, I looked at London court records for evidence of how witnesses spoke, and because prisoners were sentenced to the Virginia Colony from 1607, how their language went overseas with them:

Wright, Laura. 2001. Third person singular present-tense -s, -th and zero, 1575 – 1648. American Speech 76/3: 236-258.

Wright, Laura. 2002. Third person plural present-tense markers in London prisoners’ depositions, 1562-1623. American Speech 77/3: 242-263.        

London prisoners were sentenced to America, and from the early 1620s to the Caribbean:

Wright, Laura. Eight grammatical features of southern United States speech present in Early Modern London prison narratives. In Stephen J. Nagle and Sara L. Sanders (eds.). 2003. English in the Southern United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 36-63.             

Wright, Laura. The language of transported Londoners: third-person-singular present-tense markers in depositions from Virginia and the Bermudas, 1607-1624. In Raymond Hickey (ed.). 2004. Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in transported dialects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 158-171.           

In the seventeenth century soldiers and ‘planters’, as settlers were known, set up a court on the Island of St Helena, South Atlantic, leaving evidence not only of the non-Standard southern English of the settlers but also the creoloid of their slaves:

Wright, Laura. The language of slaves on St Helena, South Atlantic, 1682-1724. In Marijke J. Van Der Wal and Gijsbert Rutten (eds.). 2013. Touching the Past.  Studies in the Historical Sociolinguistics of Ego-Documents.  Amsterdam:  Benjamins. 243-276.

Wright, Laura. On the East India Company vocabulary of St Helena in the late 17th and early 18th century. 2017. World Englishes 36/4: 522-540.

There were islands closer to home.  I looked at the sociolinguistic circumstances of how London ‘island’ names came about:

Wright, Laura. On Cribby Islands. 2012. Journal of the English Place-Name Society 44: 49-65. 

Wright, Laura. On the place-name Isle of Dogs. In Britt Erman, Gunnel Melchers, Philip Shaw and Peter Sundkvist (eds.). 2015. From Clerks to Corpora. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. 87–115.    

Moving to eighteenth-century London English, I was interested in evidence for lower-class speakers’ language, and tracked phrases travelling along a Nonconformist social network:

Wright, Laura. Eighteenth-century London non-standard spellings as evidenced by servants’, tradesmen’s and shopkeepers’ bills.  In Nicholas Brownlees, Gabriella Del Lungo and John Denton (eds.).  2010. The Language of Public and Private Communicaton in a Historical Perspective.  Cambridge:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 161-190.

Langmuir, Christopher and Laura Wright. Interpreting Charles Lamb’s ‘neat-bound books’.  2019. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 54: 157-177.             

With regard to communities of practice, I looked at how the suffix -oon became enregistered as indexical of the mercantile classes, and plotted firework lexemes moving around a tight-knit community of fireworkers, from family to family across generations:

Wright, Laura. The Nomenclature of some French and Italian fireworks in eighteenth-century London. 2011. The London Journal 36/2: 109-39.       

Wright, Laura. On Early and Late Modern English non-native suffix -oon. In Javier Calle Martín and Laura Esteban (eds.). 2020. Standardisation and Change in Early Modern English: Empirical Approaches.  International Journal of English Studies20/2: 117-143.

The nineteenth century was when brand-naming came into full force, with advertisers targetting specific social groups.  I focussed on advertisements aimed at the lower-to-middling sorts of young women and their swains (‘Our Gents and Misses’, 1870s, Rimmel), who had enough money to be susceptible to perfume advertisements, yet enough social freedom to be able to visit lower-class music-halls, or know someone who did, and thus catch topical song-title references:

Wright, Laura.  From Lavender Water to Kiss Me, You Dare!: shifting linguistic norms in the perfume industry, 1700-1900.  In Giovanni Iamartino and Laura Wright (eds.). 2017 [2016]. Textus: English Studies in Italy. 29/3: 147-176.

Wright, Laura. Kiss Me Quick: on the naming of commodities in Britain, 1650 to the First World War. In Esther-Miriam Wagner, Bettina Beinhof and Ben Outhwaite (eds.). 2017.  Merchants of Innovation: the Language of Traders.  Berlin: Mouton.  108-131.

My recent publications are on lexical sociolinguistics. Sunnyside follows this housename through a community of practice, Quakers and other Nonconformists, as they moved southwards and across the Atlantic to North America, for whom the name was an insider-shibboleth well into the later nineteenth century.  I trace the name back to its origins in the borders and Scotland, where ‘vesying the sunny side’ (collectively observing where farmers’ shadows fell at a given place at a given time of year) was an ancient Nordic method of identifying land.  In The Social Life of Words I explain and demonstrate what lexical sociolinguistics is, by examining the history of words via different approaches and methods – social networks (Swiss waiter), communities of practice (etna, laugh!), polysemy (maroon, popcorn), onomasiology (direction, address, kiss me quick), stereotypes (goss, goodwill, porridge, Fido & Rover), language regard and influencers (cafe & restaurant), indexicality and enregisterment (Drage, tinned salmon), spatial practice (monkey parade), lexical appropriation (into, baggonet, burgoo):

Wright, Laura.  2020.  Sunnyside: A Sociolinguistic History of British House Names. Oxford University Press: The British Academy.  Paperback version 2021.

Wright, Laura. 2023. The Social Life of Words: a Historical Approach. Language in Society.  Oxford:  Blackwells.