Review of Motives for Language Change
Date: Tue, 2 Sep 2003 18:14:00 +0200
Subject: Motives for Language Change
Hickey, Raymond, ed. (2003). Motives for Language Change. Cambridge University
Press, 298pp, hardcover ISBN 0521793033.
Reviewed by Patrick Studer, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland.
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
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
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
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.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
About the author: 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.