Social media and mobile technology have increased and accelerated human interconnectedness and social networking on a global scale. It is a common observation that new words and expressions travel fast in these networks. But our primary medium of communication is still spoken interaction, and this is how language is transmitted to the next generation. Linguists have long been interested in the influence of social networks on language learning, use and, ultimately, on language change. They have shown how people either tend to maintain the language they once acquired or become more apt to change it depending on the kinds of social network relationships they have contracted. Now, two questions intrigue the language historian. First, is it possible to gain access to the social networks of people who lived centuries ago and, second, to the extent that it is, could such networks perhaps be used to trace language change?
Present-day sociolinguistic studies approach these issues by using various methods first to chart network structures and their content, and then record and analyse the network members’ language use in different contexts. Historical studies present particular challenges in both respects. My article highlights the role of place in historical social network research. I begin by discussing the kinds of data – official documents, personal letters and diaries – that social historians have used in reconstructing past communities and social networks. I suggest that these analyses can be enriched by adding linguistic data, and that language historians’ findings on linguistic change may often be interpreted in terms of social networks.
Focusing on Early Modern London, I present two case studies. The first one investigates a 16th-century merchant family exchange network, active in London, Calais and Antwerp, in an analysis based on their extensive family correspondence. Personal letters are supplemented with the wealth of information provided by a private diary in the second case study of the 17th-century naval administrator Samuel Pepys. Pepys’s role as a community broker between the commercial City of London and the Royal Court at Westminster is assessed in linguistic terms. My results show how identifying the leaders and laggers of linguistic change can add to our understanding of the varied ways in which linguistic innovations spread to and from Tudor and Stuart London both within and across social networks.