LINGUIST List 12.972

Sat Apr 7 2001

Review: Aitchison, Language Change (3rd ed.)

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


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  1. J.H.W.Marshall, review of Aitchison, Language Change

Message 1: review of Aitchison, Language Change

Date: Fri, 6 Apr 2001 14:02:07 +0100
From: J.H.W.Marshall <J.Marshallsheffield.ac.uk>
Subject: review of Aitchison, Language Change

Aitchison, Jean (2001). Language Change: Progress or
Decay? (3rd ed.) Cambridge: CUP. Hardback, xi, 312pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan Marshall, University of
Sheffield, England.

The latest edition of this interesting and accessible
book by Jean Aitchison is now available. It covers a
broad range of topics under the rubric of language
change in a clear, logical manner, and would not be
out of place as a text for any undergraduate course.
The sociolinguistic aspects of language change are
included, something which wasn't found in many texts
until recently.

Chapter 1 'The ever-whirling wheel' covers the
inevitability of change and historical attitudes to
change. Chapter 2 'Collecting up clues' gives a
description of intuition-based, text-based and
fieldwork-based methods, with plentiful examples from
the languages of the world. Chapter 3 'Charting the
changes' covers language variation, with examples
from well-known studies, such as Labov's New York
City study. Chapter 4 'Spreading the word' covers the
diffusion of change, with examples such as Labov's
Martha's Vineyard study. Chapter 5 'Conflicting
loyalties' covers Trudgill's Norwich study,
accommodation theory, Cheshire's Reading study and
Eckert's 'Jocks and Burnouts', social pressure,
attitudes and gender differences. Chapter 6 'Catching
on and taking off' covers lexical diffusion,
historical linguistics and the s-curve. Chapter 7
'Caught in the web' covers syntactic change. Chapter
8 'The wheels of language' covers grammaticalization,
while chapter 9 'Spinning away' covers semantic
change. Chapter 10 covers sociolinguistic and
language-internal causes of change. The chapter is
commendable for its view of causation as complex and
multi-faceted. Fashion, foreign influence and social
need are all examined. In Chapter 11 'Doing what
comes naturally', sociolinguistic factors are viewed
as triggers, rather than 'causes' of change, in the
strictest sense of the word. Phonological changes are
examined, with very good examples from various
languages, and a theoretical discussion on the
naturalness of change. Chapter 12 'Repairing the
patterns' covers how languages neaten up the bits
that are left over after changes are complete.
Chapter 13 'The mad hatter's tea party' covers chain
shifts, and the knock-on effect of changes within a
language. Chapter 14 makes comparisons between
language change and aphasia and child language
acquisition. Chapter 15 covers language birth,
pidgins and creoles, while chapter 16 looks at
language death, comparing language suicide with
language murder. Chapter 17 finally gives the answer
to the question posed in the title, regarding whether
language change is progress or decay, with a good,
clear summary of the points made.

The book makes interesting reading, and I found it
hard to put down. Many interesting facts are
discussed, and I will definitely use some of the
examples in my lectures. I felt some more space could
have been dedicated to attitudinal factors and
resistance to change. Social factors are seen as
'triggers', but not really as facilitating or
retarding influences on the SPREAD of change. The
critical period hypothesis is criticized (p. 204),
but later seems to be supported (p. 210). By the end,
however, the question posed is answered in the most
logical way, and the book shows Aitchison's
impressive knowledge of the subject.


As a sociolinguistic interested in language change,
this book was of special interest to me. My own
research has focused on the area of resistance to
change, and which sociological factors may be at work
in the process. My fieldwork has been conducted in a
rural Scottish farming community, where Scots is
still spoken fairly fluently. I have examined the
conserving effect of social networks, attitudes to
dialects, national pride, social class and what I
call Life Mode (Labov's 'Local Team Values'). At the
moment I am working as a part-time lecturer in
sociolinguistics, and as a Research Associate in the
National Centre for English Cultural Tradition,
attached to the Department of English Language and
Linguistics. The work involves digitizing and editing
recordings of Yorkshire dialect from the 1981 Survey
of Sheffield Usage. I am copying the material onto
CD-ROMs, which can be used for research and student
projects. I will also publish a quantitative analysis
of the data. I begin my new post as lecturer at the
University of Edinburgh in September.
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