CALL FOR PAPERS: Formulaic Language in Historical Research and Data Extraction: An International Conference

Huygens Institute, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

Amsterdam – 7-9 February 2024

Formulaic language is a phenomenon familiar to scholars working with a great variety of historical sources. In official documents such as charters, acts, laws, ordinances, proceedings, but also in ‘private’ texts such as letters, petitions, egodocuments, and literary texts, we find (sequences of) words that appear over and over again, often in the same position in the text, over a long period of time. Such formulaic elements seem to fulfill many different functions: they may help the reader understand the type or genre of a text, structure the text, indicate its performative character, strengthen the relationship between author and reader, or help memorizing a text, to name but a few.

Given the highly formulaic character of many written sources, especially (but not only) of the premodern period, the phenomenon of formulaic language has received surprisingly little attention in historical research. It has been studied in (socio)linguistics and historical pragmatics, but few historians have engaged with this scholarship. Until recently, moreover, the potential of formulaic language for (automated) data extraction of large digitized source corpora has remained virtually unexplored.

The twofold aim of this international conference is: 

  1. to place formulaic language on the agenda as an object of historical study (in the broadest, interdisciplinary sense of this term)
  2. to explore the potential of formulaic language for the digitization and data extraction of historical sources of different types and periods.

Possible questions that we would like to address in this conference include: 

  • What is formulaic language? In which societal domains and historical sources can it be found? When and why has language been considered formulaic, and by whom? How is formulaic language defined and studied in different academic fields? How does the use of formulaic language vary across (national) linguistic traditions and across space and time?
  • How has formulaic language historically been understood? Which purposes has it served? How, when and where has formulaic language emerged, transferred or disappeared? How has formulaic language evolved over time, and how can change be explained? How does formulaic language in written texts relate to speech acts and ritual performances? How does it relate to text genres and genre conventions?
  • What are the social and political connotations and consequences of formulaic language? Who produces it, who engages with it, who knows how to use it, and who is excluded by it? How do (political, religious, legal) authorities, intermediaries, and ordinary language users employ, exploit, and interpret formulaic language? Does formulaic language facilitate or hinder the participation of subaltern groups in society? What is the relationship between formulaic language and the subsequent transitions from oral to written culture to the age of print and the digital age, or with processes of standardization, professionalization, and bureaucratization? 
  • How can formulas be used to extract information from texts? What information do formulaic expressions convey about the subject or meaning of a text? Can they play a role in recognizing and contextualizing named entities? Can they help to link texts with other texts?
  • How can formulaic language be identified in text corpora and archives, including long serial publications and heterogeneous archives of diverse documents? How can formulaic expressions be categorized and how can relationships between formulas be identified?

We welcome proposals for papers (c. 250 words) on these and related topics from scholars working in different fields. Proposals should be sent, together with a short bio-bibliographical statement including indication of institutional affiliation, by 15 June, to Please give your email the title ‘Formulaic Language conference’.

We will prioritize proposals that go beyond singular case studies and address questions that help us understand the phenomenon of formulaic language through comparisons across time, space, language, genre or corpus.

This conference is organized in the framework of the project REPUBLIC: Resolutions Published in a Computational Environment. In this infrastructural project, (digital) historians, computer scientists, data experts and developers collaborate with the aim of providing digital access to the resolutions (decisions) of the Dutch States General (1576-1796).

Rik Hoekstra

Marijn Koolen

Joris Oddens

Huygens Institute for the History and Culture of the Netherlands