Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Archäologie

Register in Ancient Languages

October 26-28, 2022

organized by Kristina Hülk & Dina Serova

Venue of the keynote: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Main Building, Westwing, room 2095A and on Zoom.

Venue of the workshop: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Main Building, Westwing, room 1066e.

You can find the full program and book of abstracts here.


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Workshop description

“Register in Ancient Languages” is a two-days international workshop with the aim to widely introduce and critically discuss the linguistic concept of register within language sciences dealing with non-contemporary, historical or ancient data.

We are looking forward to 12 international contributions on current topics in register research in various historical languages. We are expecting studies dealing with different text corpora (e.g., letters, narrations, instructions, religious or funerary texts, etc.) from Ancient Egyptian, Old High German, Umbrian and Hittite, Sanskrit and Latin.

Our keynote speaker is Dr. Stéphane Polis (F.R.S. - FNRS/Université de Liège) with the talk “Intertwined Registers. The Interaction between the Linguistic, Graphemic and Graphetic Dimensions of Variation in a Text Language”

In relation to the CRC 1412 “Language User’s Knowledge of Situational-Functional Variation”, registers are defined as aspects of socially recurring intra-individual (and inter-individual) language variation that are affected by situational and functional parameters (Halliday 1978; Neumann 2014; Biber 1999, 2012, 2019).

These parameters can be observed both on the linguistic (e.g., graphical, morpho-syntactic, lexical, semantic features of a text) as well as on the extralinguistic level and touch upon aspects associated with the communicative purpose(s) and topic(s) of a text, but also the participants of the communication and their relation to each other (status, social roles, authority, expertise, education, familiarity, etc.). The underlying idea is that text producers have the ability and knowledge to switch between different language varieties depending on the communicative context and the associated goals and intentions of the text.


Challenges and approaches

Unlike in general linguistics, the possibilities of investigation of linguistic variation in ancient languages are mostly restricted to the available textual material. Often textual corpora are not yet available so that first qualitative and meticulous work is required in order to collect enough data for further study. In many cases, this encompasses transcriptions and transliterations from original documents (primary sources).

Often, lacunae need to be interpreted and reconstructed by comparative and synoptic approaches. On the lexical level, also lexicography and/or lexicology become important in order to assess the meaning of a word, sentence or passage. In short, various methodologies from philology, paleography, text-criticism, etc. need to be applied before register studies or related research questions can be conducted. Apart from that, register analysis in ancient languages requires an accurate deduction of extralinguistic factors of the text production and reception on the basis of linguistic patterns.

Thus, scholars dealing with ancient or historical languages mostly encounter difficulties in contextualizing their material due to the temporal, cultural and often spatial gap between them and the language as well as culture they investigate. 

Also, since the work on ancient languages is not always taking place only within the scope of linguistics, the respective subject-specific research history can play a significant role in dealing with phenomena such as register. This is especially the case when specific texts or text groups are described by attributes such as “antiquated”, “neo-”, etc. or are characterized as “standard language”, “vernacular”, “archaism”, “low vs. high register” (cf. Di Biase-Dyson 2019, 54−56). However, in implementing and applying the theoretical and methodological framework of register variation to the academic discourse of historical linguistics, we believe that two main directives can be achieved: 1) ancient and historical languages can be used as an important testing ground for hypotheses generated by modern linguists and allow a critical but fruitful re-evaluation of models, theories, and assumptions; 2) in applying register studies, important insights can be gained into complex processes of language acquisition, production, reception – both from a synchronic as well as diachronic perspectives. Both aspects tackle the question of universality resp. distinctive features across cultures and languages of the past.


Potential research questions include, but are not restricted to the following:

  1. How is the concept of register conceptualized in ancient or historical languages? What kind of challenges have to be taken into account when studying language variation in ancient or historical languages?
  2. How can register be modeled and operationalized in corresponding philological and linguistic disciplines?
  3. How to investigate extralinguistic features of texts when the primary source is fragmentary and/or the context is lost?
  4. Is it possible to disentangle intra-individual varieties from inter-individual ones (e.g. dialect, sociolect, idiolect, style, etc.) on the basis of texts?
  5. How do registers emerge and change with the time in ancient and historical civilizations? To what extent are the underlying processes and mechanisms comparable?
  6. What is the benefit of implementing theoretical and methodological approaches from sociolinguistics and general linguistics into the study of dead or lost languages? How can we critically test and diversify hypotheses generated by general linguistics on the basis of our material?



Biber, D. 1999. A Register Perspective on Grammar and Discourse: Variability in the Form and Use of English Complement Clause, Discourse Studies 1/2, 131−150.

______2012. Register as a predictor of linguistic variation, Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 8/1, 9−37.

______2019. Text-linguistic approaches to register variation, Register Studies 1, 42−75.

Di Biase-Dyson, C. 2019. Narratives by Ancient Egyptians and of Ancient Egypt: A State of the Art, in: D. Serova, B. Burkhard, M. Götz, A. Verbovsek (eds), Narrative: Geschichte Mythos Repräsentation, BAJA 8, 1.12.−3.12.2017, Wiesbaden, 39−63.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning, London.

Neumann, S. 2014. Contrastive register variation: A quantitative approach to the comparison of English and German, Berlin.