Letter writing

Letter writing. Ed. by Terttu Nevalainen and Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen. (Benjamins current topics 1.) Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 2007. Pp. viii, 160. ISBN 9789027222312. $120 (Hb).

Reviewed by Sandra Becker, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

This slim but precious volume presents current debates over letter writing and the pragmatics it involves. This volume consists of an insightful introduction, an in-depth book review, and seven articles that focus on late medieval letters, Early Modern English family correspondence, and issues of  politeness and address that showcase the cultural aspects of letter writing. Under the editorship of Terttu Nevalainen and Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen, this special volume is devoted to the history and discursive nature of letter writing.

Seija Tiisala’s ‘Power and politeness: Languages and salutation formulas in correspondence between Sweden and the German Hanse’ examines medieval letters written in Latin, Low German, and Swedish to describe how language choice reflects power and reveals protocol and politeness conventions. In ‘Letters: A new approach to text typology’, Alexander Bergs expands the categories of text genres and presents some interrelated categories based on morphosyntactic variability and the different functions language can fulfill. ‘Text in context: A critical discourse analysis approach to Margaret Paston’, by Johanna L. Wood, reframes the social role of Margaret Paston using Norman Fairclough’s (Discourse and social change, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992) three-dimensional approach to critical discourse analysis. Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen brilliantly examines the major aspects of intertextuality in her contribution, ‘Intertextual networks in the correspondence of Lady Katherine Paston’. Her study incorporates the so-called horizontal intertextual relations manifested through various references that connect distinct texts and serve the purpose of epistolary space structure analysis.

In ‘Inside and out: Forms of address in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters’, Minna Nevala provides a theoretical and historical overview of address usages. She calls attention to the opinions and reactions of the audience as well as to the addressee’s important role in the choice of direct address. In ‘Yours sincerely and yours affectionately : On the origin and development of two positive politeness markers’, Annemieke Bijkerk outlines the fluctuating historical origin of these formulaic politeness markers and remarks on the relevance of John Gay’s early eighteenth century linguistic studies. Ellen Valle’s ‘The pleasure of receiving your favour: The colonial exchange in eighteenth-century natural history’ focuses on ways in which letters influence and build scientific knowledge. Valle explores the macrostructure of eighteenth century correspondences and highlights personal, private, and public aspects of those letters. The final contribution is a glowing book review by Monika Fludernik of The familiar letter in early modern English: A pragmatic approach by Susan Fitzmaurice (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002).

This book succeeds in delivering a refreshing, original, and reliable platform for those who are interested in a pragmatic approach to the analysis of letter writing.