LINGUIST List 12.1523

Fri Jun 8 2001

Disc: New: Approach to Historical Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Peter T. Daniels, Approach to Historical Linguistics

Message 1: Approach to Historical Linguistics

Date: Thu, 07 Jun 2001 12:14:41 -0500
From: Peter T. Daniels <>
Subject: Approach to Historical Linguistics

I have recently come across two independent historical treatments of
well-documented language families that employ essentially the same
approach to linguistic history. Both Giuliano Bonfante, The Origin of
the Romance Languages (Carl Winter, 1999) and Burkhart Kienast
(Historische Semitische Sprachwissenschaft (Harrassowitz, 2001),
consider languages in the order their speakers moved away from the
home speech community; these languages are then believed to exhibit
the most archaic features, with subsequent languages appearing more
innovative, but preserving more or less clear traces of archaic
features that had gone out of use.

Bonfante's ms. was written in the 1940s and prepared for publication
in the mid 1990s; I am aware of the book only because I provided
editorial help: Prof. Bonfante is of sound mind and fairly sound body
and will celebrate his 97th birthday in August. He credits a
distinguished predecessor with the basic notion, summarizing it as
follows in the 1998 preface:

"The central idea of the book is not mine, but that of the eminent
German scholar Gustav Grober. Grober's thesis is very simple --
even, at first glance, obvious. The Romance languages represent the
various steps of Roman colonization: Sicily was colonized in 241 B.C.,
Spain around 200 B.C., Gaul around 50 B.C., Dacia in 108
A.D.. Therefore the language of Sicily would represent the Latin of
Plautus, Spanish that of Ennius, French that of Caesar, Romanian that
of Apuleius. ..." (p. xvi) And Italian is thus paradoxically both the
most conservative Romance language (because it never moved away to
undergo separate development) and the most innovative (because it
continued to develop on the spot). (p. 3)

Kienast presumably did not know Grober's work and cannot have known
Bonfante's, but as an Assyriologist is most familiar with the earliest
attested Semitic language and observed decreasing traces of early
features in the successive stages that he identifies as Ethiopic,
Canaanite, Aramaic, and Arabic. (Note that Arabic corresponds to
Italian, accounting for both its retention of early features like case
desinence and its innovations like broken plurals.)

A very significant observation is that Bonfante relies a great deal on
details of modern dialects to work out his thesis, using the
historical record only sparingly; whereas both perforce and by choice,
Kienast is largely limited to the written record of the five classical
Semitic languages, invoking features of modern South Arabian, Aramaic,
and Arabic only incidentally.

My questions for linguists generally are: Since this approach has
occurred to two scholars independently, has it been applied by others
in additional language families? And, Has any theoretician of language
change/historical linguistics addressed this approach?
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