Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


Words Onscreen

By Naomi S. Baron

Words Onscreen "explores how technology is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Communication Accommodation Theory

Edited by Howard Giles

Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.

Review of  The Bloomsbury Companion to Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Dibella Wdzenczny Caminsky
Book Title: The Bloomsbury Companion to Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Silvia Luraghi Vit Luraghi
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.4903

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


“The Bloomsbury Companion to Historical Linguistics” is an edited collection of papers that address aspects and extensions of the subfield of historical linguistics, similar to Joseph and Janda's (2003) “Handbook of Historical Linguistics”. The volume also deals with advances in the field within the last ten years since the handbook appeared. The book is intended to provide up-to-date coverage of both the fundamentals (such as the comparative method) and more modern approaches (such as computational methodologies) within historical linguistics. Each chapter begins with an outline overview and quick topic reference. The authors are both up-and-coming scholars as well as seasoned historical linguists, and they present a varied range of perspectives on the discipline.

The book begins with an introduction by the editors, “Historical Linguistics: History, Sources and Resources.” This chapter gives an excellent overview of the field throughout history, from the very first inklings that Indo-European languages might have come from a single, older source to modern generative approaches to historical questions. Also included are descriptions of the history of the study of writing systems, variation, and language contact. Concluding the chapter is a list of available historical corpus resources sorted by language or language family, with publication and website information where available.

The first subsection, Methodology, includes the chapters “Sound Change and the Comparative Method: The Science of Historical Reconstruction” by John Hewson, “Internal Reconstruction” by Brian D. Joseph, “Typology and Universals” by Hans Heinrich Hock, and “Internal Language Classification” by Søren Wichmann. These chapters review the history of specific aspects of historical linguistics very thoroughly, situating them in the field both methodologically and theoretically. The comparative method is described with respect to its scientific nature and viability, and in several chapters, aspects of computational possibilities in historical linguistics are mentioned, along with a number of important caveats.

The second subsection, Phonological Change, contains the chapters “Segmental Phonological Change” by Joseph Salmons and “Suprasegmental and Prosodic Historical Phonology” by Hans Heinrich Hock. Both chapters explore in great detail hypotheses on the motivation for sound change in their respective areas of phonology, especially with regards to the broader systematicity of historical phonology versus the details of phonetics/phonemics, such as processes of assimilation, the idea of sound change motivated by ease of articulation, syllable preference laws, and the elimination of features as well as segments. Both chapters also include a plethora of examples of theories of sound change, as well as several counterexamples. These chapters crucially evaluate and compare the relative strengths of different different typological hypotheses and explanatory value when situated in historical versus synchronic phonology. One is Kiparsky’s (2008) coda neutralization to an unmarked value: onsets must contrast in at least as many ways as codas, and when codas are neutralized through sound change, they will always do so to the unmarked value; Salmons shows that this is not the case in several languages.

The third subsection, Morphological and Grammatical Change, includes the chapters “From Morphologization to Demorphologization” by Henning Andersen, “Analogic Change” by Livio Gaeta, and “Change in Grammatical Categories” by Vit Bubenik. In these chapters, one can find extensive lists of examples and descriptions of virtually every process of morphological change. Whereas Andersen leaves open the question of where these types of change come from, suggesting that this issue is to be understood on a case-by-case basis, Gaeta and Bubenik both address the larger question of what may drive mechanisms of change; Gaeta specifically targets different results of analogic change that emerge from the pressure to conform to various paradigmatic patterns, and Bubenik describes in-depth several types of change within Afro-Asiatic and Semitic as a case study.

The fourth subsection, Syntactic Change, contains the chapters “Word Order” by Jan Terje Faarlund, “The Rise (and Possible Downfall) of Configurationality” by Silvia Luraghi, “Subordination” by Dorothy Disterheft and Carlotta Viti, and “Alignment” by Geoffrey Haig. These chapters discuss issues of syntactic change and configuration in both generative and discourse-functional approaches. Faarlund couches word order change in terms of generative deep structure change, but returns to a more functionalist view in the grammaticalization of discourse as the emergence of topicalization. Luraghi examines non-configurationality in Indo-European from a usage-based approach, which is a welcome addition to a topic typically only addressed in generative linguistics and LFG. Haig uses Persian as a case study to illustrate the alignment shift to ergativity in Iranian languages.

The fifth subsection, Semantico-Pragmatic Change, includes the chapters “Grammaticalization “by Elizabeth Traugott, “Semantic Change” by Eugenio R. Luján, and “Etymology” by Thomas Krisch. Traugott’s chapter provides very detailed background on grammaticalization, internal divisions within the theory, examples of proposed facets of grammaticalization, and insights from other theories. Luján’s chapter covers the basic types of semantic change, its effects and results in different systems, and most interestingly, semantic change beyond the word. Krisch’s chapter gives several detailed examples of etymological investigation, such as the name for the god ‘Poseidon’, and the word for ‘god’, approaching the examination from all possible directions. This exemplifies just how complex etymology can be.

The sixth subsection, Explanations of Language Change, contains the chapters “Language Contact” by Bridget Drinka, “Regional and Social Dialectology” by J.K. Chambers, and “Causes of Language Change” by Silvia Luraghi. Drinka’s chapter explores advances in language contact since the seminal volume by Thomason and Kaufman (1988), while still reiterating the necessary caveats concerning the unpredictability of language contact situations. For example, Drinka emphasizes that the most striking and important claims about language contact is that it is social factors that drive change (rather than internal, formal ones), but also that these social factors are not always predictive nor do they always head in the direction of linguistic simplification. Chamber’s chapter discusses the variationist approach to language change, as seen through the nuanced lens of dialectology and quantitative sociolinguistics. Luraghi’s chapter reframes all of the previously discussed types of historical change through linguistic theories of cognition, discourse, and socio-functional usage, and asks, finally, if there are indeed purely internal factors for change and if a language can change separate from the people who actively speak it.

Finally, the book includes compiled references, a helpful index of languages, and, a section titled “A-Z Historical Linguistics”, which contains nearly all terminology pertinent or specific to historical linguistics. The contributors were responsible for including and defining terms especially as they were used within the text, and the editors were tasked with unifying them.


Overall, this edited volume is a generally well-written collection of papers on various aspects of historical linguistics. It covers all aspects of historical linguistics, including cutting-edge new material that has more recently been introduced into the field. While separate handbooks exist on particular topics (grammaticalization, historical phonology) discussed in this volume (Narrog and Heine 2011; Honeybone and Salmons 2014), the book presents nuanced and detailed information on each of these. thus giving a greater insight into them from a more general perspective.

The best chapters in the book are those that discuss the limitations of particular approaches as well as their history and successes. For example, the chapters by Joseph, Salmons, both of Hock, and Traugott chapters are very careful to mention the caveats (both well-known and less-known) to internal reconstruction, phonological explanations for change, and grammaticalization, respectively. Not only does this discussion add to the intellectual value of the book, but it also makes it less likely for less experienced readers to fall into theoretical traps in their own work. Critique is an important but often overlooked part of any survey of methodology in any subfield; unfortunately, not all chapters that should include such evaluation have it. In particular, the two chapters where computational approaches are introduced (Hewson’s and Wichmann’s) suffer from an overload of examples but a lack of sufficient explanation of the limitations of these methods. Criticisms of computational methods may have been assumed by these writers, but this is not good practice for a general survey volume especially if there is not a specific chapter dedicated to doing so (cf. Joseph’s chapter in Narrog & Heine (2011)). On the positive side, however, the new methodologies presented in Hewson’s chapter may give hope to historical linguists who are still looking for a reliable computational analog to the standard comparative method, despite the vast amounts of digitization that this approach would entail.

Wichmann’s chapter presents a useful outline of different approaches to subgrouping and calculating genetic distance, as well as computational representations of more blended (non-dendrogram) models. These models are becoming more popular, especially with linguists who work with language families that exhibit significant lateral transmission. However, on pg. 72 Wichmann makes a statement about other competing diagnostics for genetic relationship that have been put forth, including “random searches for any possible cognates within a large group of languages (Greenberg 1987)...”, following it with “It is not clear which sort of method works best,” and “[n]one of them, not even some combination, could deliver the sort of proof for a genealogical relation that would satisfy any historical linguist.” It is surprising that at this stage of development of the field, random mass comparisons would be put on a par with the comparative method for establishing genetic relationships, especially when “random searches” seem to be considered equivalent with tested and significantly more vetted methods such as the “fixed vocabulary [Swadesh] list”, “and similar shaped pronominals (Nichols 1996)”. It is disappointing that the chapter relies heavily on explaining lexicostatistics and binary perceived similarity rather than including more recent computational work on exploring subgrouping, such as computational comparison of kinship systems among subgroups, loanword rates, or numeral systems. While it is valuable to explain how these computational methods work, the results would seem to be more important.

The syntax section lacks a more integrated discussion of different theoretical approaches to syntactic change. While the syntactic change section includes both generative and functional approaches and explanations, they are divided by chapter. Faarlund’s chapter on word order leans significantly toward explanation rooted in discourse function, whereas Luraghi’s chapter on configurationality relies heavily upon generative theories and terminology. Ideally, both of these chapters would have included the other perspective: syntactic change in word order necessarily needs to be addressed in generative grammar (in order for it to be truly universal), and discourse function is an extremely important factor in change in non-configurational languages. While space is of course limited, each chapter would have been enhanced by an expansion of its theoretical perspective.

On a more editorial note, a few typographical issues disturbed the readability of the book. There were an unfortunate number of typographical errors, including in the headers of sections within the text. Moreover, the layout of some examples within particular chapters (e.g., Table 8.8, pg. 139), was extremely difficult to read and make sense of. There was also an abundance of Indo-European-specific terminology, such as “Cicero’s modus dicendi” (pg. 245), that were only cursorily explained. While “symplesiomorphies” may be an etymologically precise term that is used by biologists, “shared retention” is not only more common but significantly more transparent to the reader.

I would recommend this book for a general linguistics library, especially for students who may wish to read in more detail about a particular aspect of historical linguistics and work through the references from there. While the volume presents different data and examples than those found in Joseph & Janda (2003), much of the material is ultimately the same, and is more affordable than the earlier volume. The book has a few shortcomings with regard to depth, but it is noteworthy that many chapters include theoretically current discussions and references. The book is ultimately a detailed, interesting read for those looking for a broad overview of current theoretical trends in historical linguistics.


Greenberg, Joseph H.. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Honeybone, Patrick and Joseph Salmons. 2014. The Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joseph, Brian D. 2011. ‘Grammaticalization: A general critique.’ in Narrog and Heine (eds.). pp. 193-208.

Joseph, Brian D. and Richard D. Janda (eds.). 2003. The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Narrog, Heiko and Bernd Heine (eds.). 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Grammaticalization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nichols, Johanna. 1996. ‘The comparative method as a heuristic,’ in M. Durie and M. Ross (eds.), The Comparative Method Reviewed: Regularity and Irregularity in Language Change. pp. 39-71. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dibella Wdzenczny is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests are in historical linguistics, linguistic prehistory, language documentation, and morphosyntax (especially case systems). Her areal focus is on the indigenous languages of eastern Siberia; her current fieldwork is based in the Kamchatka peninsula.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781441130105
Pages: 480
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99