LINGUIST List 8.1583

Tue Nov 4 1997

Sum: Jespersen & linguistic change

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  1. lichao, Jespersen & linguistic change

Message 1: Jespersen & linguistic change

Date: Tue, 4 Nov 1997 17:12:58 +0800 (HKT)
From: lichao <>
Subject: Jespersen & linguistic change

Dear linguists,

A long time ago, I posted a query on your opinion on Jespersen's view of
linguistic change, i.e., linguistic change, on the whole, constitutes
progress rather than decay. Three linguists have replied. They are Iris
[], Brigitte Nerlich [], and
Steve Seegmiller []. I appreciate their
valuable information very much. But I am very sorry for my delaying the

Nerlich introduces me two reviews written by French contemporaries:
(1) Broedal (?), Michel. 1896. "Review of Jespersen (1894)." Journal des
Savants, juillet 1896; (2) Henri, Victor. 1894. "Review of Jespersen
(1894)." Revue Critique n.s., 38: 501-4. [Unfortuately these two reviews
are not available here.] Also he suggests reading his book, Change in
Language [London: Routledge, 1990].

Iris argues:

"I doubt that language change should be regarded as progress or as decay.
Especially as regards the idea of languages 'progressing,' I still have 
not quite understood where exactly they should be 'progressing' to, as in
the end a state of 'perfection' won't be reached because of the different
competing linguistic levels. From a methodological point of view, I indeed
wonder about the parameters and other means of defining 'progress' or
'decay,' especially as it seems to me that no language has reached a
terminal point of decay or progress for whichever reasons. Thus I do not
quite see the worth of defining linguistic change as either progress or
decay. I feel more attracted by Roger Lass' theorizing that change has no
directionality in the sense of progress or decay (Roger Lass (1980) 'On 
Explaining Language Change,' Cambridge: CUP.)"

Similarly Seegmiller holds that 

"I personally do not believe that linguistic change constitutes progress,
and I think most linguists do no believe so, either. Change is just
change; the result of a change is just different from the previous state,
neither better nor worse. To believe otherwise would commit one to the
view that Spanish is superior to Latin, that Modern English is better
than Old English, and so forth, and I can't even imagine what the
empirical content of such a belief would be, i.e. how could one measure
one language against another in such terms? I think it is reasonable to
say that each language is suited to the needs of its speakers, and that
each language has the means for changing as the needs of its speakers
changes, e.g. especially in the area of vocabulary."

In a word, both Iris and Seegmiller think of linguistic change neither as
progress nor as decay. Further, it is difficult to set parameters to
measure the value. I think this is true. But Jespersen's approach is that
if we compare a modern language with the same language at an older stage,
say one thousand years ago (if this language has so long a history), we
may find a development from irregularities to much more regularities. The
aim of linguistic change is that of the greastest efficiency with the
least effort and the simplest forms. There is a contradiction in these
terms: efficiency, simplicity, least effort. Even so, should we accept
change as it is? Can't we evaluate those changes? If we give any judgment,
will we go beyond the scientific bonds? 

Maybe Jespersen is too pratical and idealistic. But I still think there is
much truth in his argument. To me, language changes with man. Each
change has its gain and loss, but on the whole gain is greater than loss.
This is just a belief without enough evidence. Anyway this topic interests
me so much that in the future I may devote much time to a research of
Chinese devevlopment. I hope some linguists can inform me of the
linguistic change of those languages that are spoken by primitive tribes.

My thanks to all linguists who have mailed and will mail to me!

Chao Li
Room 2073, Dorm 46
Peking University
Beijing, 100871
P.R., China

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