Terttu Nevalainen: Language Changes, as Does Linguistics

Terttu Nevalainen is a professor of English Philology at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Helsinki. Although it is the oldest chair of English studies in Finland, it is a rather recent addition in the history of the University, having been established in 1921. As a subject, philology is understood as the study of language and culture, and often more narrowly as the study of old texts. Nevalainen too is engaged in such research, but with new methods.

I study language variation and change through the users of language and the contexts in which languages are used. When I take on the role of a historical sociolinguist, I read, for instance, private correspondence from the past. With my team I have used letters to compile the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC), which spans from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Through the corpus I have become familiar both with the England of the Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians and the S-curves that represent the spread of changes in the English language. For a researcher, some of the best moments are when you discover that the data supports your research. It reveals how the features of everyday language have changed over the centuries, sometimes even within the lifespan of an individual.

At the moment I head a project funded by the Academy of Finland in which we are compiling a wiki-style database of earlier research on the history of the English language. It can be difficult for a researcher or a student to find publications that are even a few years old. I believe that an open database can improve the situation so it will not be necessary to reinvent the wheel when starting a research project, and so that we can see where further research is needed.

Helsinki Corpus

My post-graduate studies coincided with the digital turn in language studies. In a project led by Professor Matti Rissanen, we compiled a representative historical corpus of the English language that was the first of its kind. The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts covers a period of a thousand years. The corpus was completed in 1991, and its latest TEI-XML version was finished in 2011. The data quickly spread to universities around the world. Together with Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, I compiled the Early Modern English section of the corpus (1500-1700). I had a good feel for working on texts from that period, having earlier spent a year in London gathering material for my doctoral dissertation.


The Research Unit for the Study of Variation, Contacts and Change in English, or VARIENG, represents its very own chapter in my work. The Academy of Finland appointed the unit as a National Centre of Excellence twice, from 2000 to 2005 and from 2006 to 2011. I have been the director of the unit since 2001, when Matti Rissanen retired.

VARIENG began in 1995 as a project involving philologists and linguists at the Department of English at the University of Helsinki, and it will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year by organising an international conference in October on new challenges in the use of data in English language research.

In many respects VARIENG has served as a model in humanities research both at home and abroad: we have produced open research resources, pioneered research through teamwork, maintained a multi-level career model for researchers from assistant all the way to emeritus, and opened our doors to young visitors. We shared our second term as a Centre of Excellence with a team from the University of Jyväskylä. I believe that our wide-ranging interaction made us all slightly better researchers.