LINGUIST List 14.2342

Fri Sep 5 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Hickey, ed. (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. patrick, Motives for Language Change

Message 1: Motives for Language Change

Date: Thu, 04 Sep 2003 14:12:40 +0000
From: patrick <>
Subject: Motives for Language Change

Hickey, Raymond, ed. (2003). Motives for Language Change. Cambridge
University Press, 298pp, hardcover ISBN 0521793033.

Announced at

Patrick Studer, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick,

The title of the present volume, with its reference to motives for
language change, may mislead the reader into thinking that this book
concentrates on agency as a main cause for language evolution. But
this first impression is wrong: A look into the volume reveals an
impressive collection of studies which critically review activities in
the field of diachronic linguistics and offer suggestions for future
research. The book, which is one of two volumes published in honour of
Roger Lass's 65th birthday, is edited and introduced by Raymond
Hickey. While for the original festschrift papers were included which
looked at specific phenomena of language change, the Cambridge edition
reviewed here examines the more general principles of internal and
external forces at work in linguistic evolution. The volume is divided
into six parts of varying length: Part II (linguistic models and
language change) and part V (contact-based explanations) receive the
most extensive treatment in the book. General considerations regarding
language change (part I), grammaticalisation (part III), and the
typological perspective (part VI) are covered with two contributions
each, while the social context for language change (part IV) stands
apart with only one chapter.

Quite appropriately, the book starts with the two short introductory
chapters on the phenomenon of language change in general (part
I). Peter Matthews opens the discussion in his paper on change in
E-language. He addresses the Chomskyan distinction between I-language,
which is subject to laws, and ?E-language?, speech as it is
?externalised?, and relates it to processes of linguistic
change. Comparing different studies on the issue, Matthews challenges
this view and, by posing relevant questions, manages to draw attention
to the fluidity and ultimate failure of such a distinction. Frederick
J. Newmeyer follows a similar line of approach in that he addresses
the roles of formal (structural) and functional (sociolinguistic)
factors of language change. The author analyses the respective
advantages and problems of formal and functional explanations, finding
that language change appeals to both strands and that these strands
must go hand in hand in explaining evolutionary processes in language.

The linguistic models considered in part II are the following: theory
of metaphors, S-curves, suppletive morphology, and optimality
theory. Part II begins with a contribution by Jean Aitchison who
discusses the function of metaphor in theory building in the past and
its bearing to the present, taking as starting-point Lass?s note that
?theory often (maybe normally) is the formalization of metaphor?
(39). The author explores changes in the imagery used to describe
language, reaching the conclusion that static images of language long
prevailed over a dynamic view and that linguists should thus be aware
of the power and traps of metaphorical views about language.
Aitchison's paper is followed by an essay by David Denison who exposes
weaknesses in S-curves as a model to describe the shape of language
change. Before illustrating the problems of S-curves in a number of
syntactic and stylistic examples, Denison critically analyses the
theory and origin of the term. Richard Hogg continues the debate by
exposing inconsistencies in our common understanding of the
morphological system. Hogg looks at the development of suppletive
morphology in the history of English, wondering especially at the
regularity with which 'irregular' forms emerge. April McMahon's paper
on optimality theory and language change, finally, brings us back to a
more theoretical track. Using the example of the Great Vowel Shift,
she tries to find out how the idea of a set of innate and universal
constraints can be applied to explain phonological change and whether
OT has any explanatory force in the analysis of such developments.

Part III (grammaticalisation) includes David Lightfoot's elaborate
essay on causes of changes in grammar. The author stresses the
importance of local causes, i.e. individual situational factors, which
may offer some explanation as to why a grammar acquires one feature
and rejects another. Lightfoot mentions the auxiliary system in
English in support of his view but at the same time points out
fundamental limitations of this approach. Elizabeth Closs Traugott in
her paper on the directionality of language change searches for
evidence in favour of a unidirectional change from subjectification to
intersubjectification. Drawing evidence from English and Japanese,
Traugott traces diachronic meaning shifts towards intersubjectivity in
discourse markers.

Part IV is entirely devoted to the role of the speaker in language
change. James Milroy pursues the question of endogenous versus
external induction of change. Challenging Lass?s traditional view of
endogenously induced change, Milroy discusses an example from AAVE to
demonstrate that social factors may not only play an important role in
language change but goes on to claim that the theoretical fundament on
which such discussions traditionally rest (the internal / external
dichotomy) may need to be reconsidered in future research.

The chapters on contact-based explanations (part V) address the
questions of endogeny, social symptoms of contact, the interface
between phonetics and phonology, and the process of dialect
formation. The section opens with Markku Filppula and his
re-examination of the roles of endogeny and language contact. Like
Milroy in part IV, Filppula uses Lass?s hypothesis of ?parsimony? as
an opportunity to discuss examples from the Celtic-English speech
community in which the ?parsimonious? principle does not exclusively
apply, showing that further (contact-based) factors may need to be
considered to fully explain phenomena of language change. Malcolm Ross
looks at language contact from the perspective of speech
communities. Analysing different structures of communities in contact
with different lects, he tries to identify preliminary diagnostic
symptoms which allow us to reconstruct general types of
non-catastrophic change caused by language contact. Gregory K. Iverson
and Jospeh C. Salmons in turn re-visit the great sound changes in
Germanic (umlaut and High German Consonant Shift), searching for
phonetic underpinnings of phonological evolution. The study reveals
the porous boundaries between phonetics and phonology when it comes to
analysing sound changes and explains considerations of coarticulation
inherent in such processes. Raymond Hickey concludes the series of
contact-based essays in his long chapter on the process of new dialect
formation in New Zealand. Basing his observations on Gordon, Trudgill
et al.'s examinations of ONZE (Origin of New Zealand English Corpus),
Hickey reveals several problems and inconsistencies in previous
research. The author warns against oversimplification in interpreting
corpus data, offering alternative explanations to some findings and
suggesting a model of supraregionalisation which may explain processes
of dialect focusing.

The two final chapters of the book (part VI) deal with the typological
perspective. Bernard Comrie?s contribution is the shorter of the two,
addressing the limitations of linguistic reconstruction as a tool in
historical linguistics. It is particularly in grammaticalisation
theory where Comrie sees some potential for approximating past stages
of a language. While Comrie questions the general methodology upon
which linguistic reconstruction is based, Raymond Hickey moves on to
more concrete phenomena from early Celtic to demonstrate that phonetic
weakening in words which were induced by initial stress accent came to
be reinterpreted as systemic. He goes on to present how this process
triggered further changes in Modern Irish.

The volume, seen as a whole, marks out the terrain of language change
by asking a set of relevant questions: Where and when do languages
change, which tools do we as researchers have at our disposal to
describe such phenomena, and, ultimately, why do languages change at
all. While the authors approach these questions from various angles
and perspectives, they are similar in that they all focus on stumbling
blocks in the (theoretical or methodological) framework of their
fellow researchers before they go on to present their own ideas and
conclusions. Some authors (e.g. Hickey, Filppula, Iverson/Salmons,
Hogg) adduce detailed evidence about specific language shifts to
illustrate different processes of change (as, for example, from Irish,
German, AAVE, New Zealand English, Oceanic Austronesian Languages,
etc.); other contributions are more general in that they essentially
deal with or test the validity of theoretical and methodological
considerations on a broader, universal level (e.g. Aitchison, Comrie,
Matthews, McMahon, Newmeyer). In general, the volume is more theory
based than applied or empirical, which ties in with the purpose of the
book set out by the editor in his introduction.

There is no doubt that the study is an excellent guide to a principled
explanation of language change: Not only does it treat the subject
matter from different corners, but it is generally very reader
friendly as it provides the introductory information that is necessary
for the non-specialist to follow the main line of argumentation
alongside new insights that may be relevant for the professional
researcher. The book is a valuable resource for anyone planning to
undertake diachronic research because it offers advice and orientation
by leading figures in the field of language change. At the same time,
it may equally be used by college teachers who wish to update
themselves on issues of diachronic linguistics.

However, there are some points I would like to point out here: While
every effort was made to organise the book into different topics and
to harmonise the contributions, there are some (thematic) overlaps and
repetitions in the volume. Some sources are quoted more than once in a
similar context, which would not happen, for example, in a
monograph. Thus, even if reaching different conclusions and looking
from a different perspective, Filppula (162) and Milroy (144), for
instance, both explain Lass?s principle of parsimony independently. It
is obvious that these overlaps are due to the fact that the study is a
collection of essays written by different scholars from different
backgrounds which could not be coordinated in every single
aspect. Another point which makes the present volume different from,
for example, conference proceedings are the frequent references to
Lass. This may be explained by the fact that the volume was originally
intended as a festschrift. One may doubt, however, if Lass had
received the same amount of attention in a general volume on the
topic. Finally, although most essays are easily accessible and
understandable (notably Matthews and Newmeyer), others may sometimes
be difficult to understand for readers not familiar with the discourse
(e.g. the papers by Closs Traugott and Iverson / Salmons).

One thing that may strike the reader of this volume is the many
'inconclusive' conclusions suggested by the articles. Many
contributors end by asking a set of questions rather than by providing
answers. One recurrent (and, no doubt, central) question is WHY
changes occur in a language and whether current linguistic models have
enough explanatory force to account for such changes (cf. Newmeyer 32;
Milroy 156; McMahon 94-95; Lightfoot 121). The reader gets the
impression that even for well known and documented language changes
(e.g. German umlaut) research has barely scratched the tip of the
iceberg when it comes to explaining things. Perhaps one implicit
conclusion by the study might be that more attention must be paid to
'local causes' (Lightfoot 119) and that abstraction and
generalisation from these local causes is necessarily limited by the
very dynamic and unpredictable nature of language.

These general comments, however, do in no way lessen my appreciation
of the book as an excellent and valuable source of information and I
am sure that any reader, with a general or specific interest in the
topic, will find something to pick up on.


Patrick Studer teaches in Mary Immaculate College, University of
Limerick, Ireland, currently working on the completion of his PhD
thesis about the development of early English media language.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue