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On 4 April, the VUB’s Centre for Linguistics launched an international network on historical sociolinguistics in New York. The launch took place at a well-attended lecture at the prestigious Flanders House, overlooking the famous Manhattan skyline.


“The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has for the past 25 years been one of the international drivers in the field of historical sociolinguistics. We describe the social language history of Belgium from a bottom-up approach by studying original sources from all social classes and strands of society. This helps to rectify the traditional view that only the language use of literary authors and the societal elite is looked at,” Explains Professor Rik Vosters, project leader at the VUB.


Sociolinguistics looks at the relationship between language and society: how is your language use defined by your origin, class and age? It also looks at language status, in for instance a multilingual environment. Historical sociolinguistics looks at all these elements in the recent and more distant past.


The Brussels experts have been very successful and have quite the international following. After years of working with teams inside and outside of Europe, it was time to look at a more structured research programme to lay the foundations of the VUB as a centre of expertise for international exchange of data and information regarding social language history. After a successful competition among various research groups, the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO) granted Professor Vosters’ team with a 5-year grant.


Respect for multilingualism and diversity


Professor Wim Vandenbussche (Centre for Linguistics, VUB) gave a plenary talk on the importance of social language history. He took a stand for the solutions offered by the Belgian state towards the political oppositions between the various linguistic communities in Belgium. He also noted the much-needed respect for linguistic diversity when looking at citizenship and social inclusion; an interesting point to consider with the current US government pushing more and more for an ‘English only’ mandate.


The Flemish representative in New York, Geert De Proost, took charge of the Q&A session which followed the lecture. It was clear from the questions asked that the audience showed concerns for a multilingual Europe in times of Brexit and was apprehensive about referendums on independence. An additional worry was the growing impact of English at universities in the Netherlands and Flanders.


Historical Sociolinguistics Network


The VUB event was also the unofficial start of the first American conference by the Historical Sociolinguistics Network at the CUNY Graduate Center and New York University. This international research network was set up by the VUB back in 1997 and has since then been the driver of a whole series of activities and publications, including the yearly summer school and the international peer-reviewed Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics


Prof. Rik Vosters (left): "The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has for the past 25 years been one of the international drivers in the field of historical sociolinguistics".