Aitchison, Jean (2001). Language Change: Progress or Decay? (3rd ed.)
Cambridge University Press, Hardback, xi, 312pp.
Reviewed by Dr John C Mullen, Universit� de Paris 12 Cr�teil, France
Aitchison has become one of the most well-known
writers for explaining linguistics to lay people -
it was in this context that she was invited to give
the 1996 BBC Reith lectures on Language, a very
prestigious task in Britain.
This book, easy to read and comprehensive, is
perfectly suited as an undergraduate text for
linguistics students, and a good read for
interested laypeople. Little previous knowledge is
Chapter 1 accounts for the inevitability of change,
and the permanency of prejudices against change.
Aitchison sees class elitism and the seemingly
inevitably jaded regard of one generation on the
habits of the previous one as responsible for
prejudices against ongoing forms of language
change. She explains the linguist's scientific
approach to language variation, and debunks a
series of myths about non-standard forms of
Chapter 2 explains the job of a historical linguist
and their research methods.
Chapter 3 describes language variation, using
classic studies as examples. It also explains how
judgements about correct language are often not
clear-cut - many many sentences are judged by
native speakers to be 'a little strange' or
Chapter 4 looks at how changes in language spread
across a speech community, and examines such
phenomena as "hyper-correction".
Chapter 5 looks at the social attitudes that help
engender and spread changes in a language, and
particularly the importance of gender differences .
Both conscious efforts to speak in a prestigious
way, and unconscious forms of imitation of speech
styles are looked at.
Chapter 6 examines lexical diffusion and the "S
curve" pace of change spread within a community.
Chapter 7 deals with syntactic change.
Chapter 8 - a new chapter for this edition takes on
the question of grammaticalization - lexical
innovation leading to grammatical innovation, while
chapter 9 handles semantic change
Chapter 10 covers sociolinguistic mechanisms that
cause change - "Fashion, foreign influence and
In Chapter 11 other prerequisites of change are
looked at, and the position is defended that the
sociolinguistic forces trigger change, but that
natural forces within the language account for the
precise form of the changes.
Chapter 12 is entitled "Repairing the patterns" and
looks at how languages "recover" from "disruptive
changes", often by moving other elements into
holes left in a structure.
Chapter 13 covers chain reactions and knock-on
effects in language change, and the ingenuity with
which a language system will recycle an element
that has lost its original use.
Chapter 14 takes on the question of whether we can
lean about the mechanisms of language change as a
social communication system by studying individual
language disorders (due to brain damage,
drunkenness or other conditions). Then it looks at
Child language acquisition and considers whether
its mechanisms can teach us something about the
nature of language change. The author concludes
that these phenomena are of a completely different
nature to the historical developments of language,
and therefore are largely irrelevant.
Chapter 15 covers language birth, pidgins and
creoles, explaining in detail how a pidgin is born,
and how it can become a Creole once there is a
generation of native speakers, who have the pidgin
as their first language.
Chapter 16 looks at language death, comparing
language suicide (in particular the processes by
which a creole can gradually rejoin and merge with
its mother language) with language murder (the
social domination mechanisms by which one language
is replaced by a more prestigious one. )
Chapter 17 concludes, as one might expect, that
language change is neither a process of decay
(despite the eternal moaners about how the language
"is going down the drain", nor is it in itself
progress (there is no sign that languages thousands
of years ago were in any way "primitive"). We are
faced more with processes of natural change,
accommodation and adaptation, as language strives
to meet the social needs of its speakers.
The book is a very good and readable
introduction to the discipline of historical
linguistics and covers a very large number of
questions. It is written in an upbeat style,
littered with quotations (from Pirsig's and
Steinbeck' novels, Browning's poetry, rock songs or
Spike Milligan films) which will amuse the lecturer
(and probably intrigue our younger students). The
chapter titles (from "the ever -whirling wheel" to
"the mad hatter's tea party") show the intention is
to entertain as well as instruct.
I did feel that, in the chapters dealing with
"changes in progress", and in the introduction on
prejudice against language change, this third
edition was insufficiently refreshed with new
examples from research or from public debate about
language change. Such examples might have made
sections of the book feel less dated. Nine tenths
of the examples are the same as in the first (1981)
edition. Given the long time between research and
publication, this gave some of the examples of
"changes in progress" a distinctly dated look,
particularly since Aitchison emphasises the
breakneck speed of linguistics research in recent
decades. The vast majority of quotations condemning
language change, for example, are from the 1970s.
And the chapter on "changes in progress" includes
this gem : "In Reading, a moderately big town about
fifty miles west of London, England, it is not
uncommon to hear sentences such as 'I knows how to
handle teddy boys'."
Similarly, the recent public debate in Britain
about the rise of "Estuary English" - widely seen
as a form of language decay - does not get a
mention, and the chapter on sound changes invites
the reader to compare their pronunciation of the
noun "recess" with the 1982 edition of the Concise
Some sections of the book, in my view leave
the reader not quite sure where the discussion is
leading. In particular the section on the
decreolization of Tok Pisin (a Pidgin which
Aitchison has studied in depth) seemed unconvincing
- the creole did not seem so likely to die out and
be replaced by English.
In a book that covers such a wide range of
issues - from phonological change to semantic
change - and such a wide range of languages, it is
probably inevitable that some errors have crept in,
whether the source be the authors work or her
references. Thus the information given on page 107
on the omission of "ne" in spoken French is quite
misleading (elision takes place and has done for
many decades before imperative forms). And I have
never seen any evidence given for an increasing
frequency in recent years of present continuous
forms with verbs of state in English (p107)
Finally, there are at times rather astounding
statements - in particular "the Irish reputation
for illogicality could well have arisen out of
English attempts to understand an Irish accent",
where it seems that the question under analysis is
not part of a linguist's domain, but rather the
Despite these small faults, the book is a
very successful introduction and deserves its
status as a standard.
After a background in Civilization studies, I turned to research in
pedagogy and linguistics a few years ago. I am a member of the Linguistics
and Didactics group at Paris 12 University. My last paper
<http://mapage.noos.fr/johnmullen/economist.htm> looked at referee design
and its effect on vocabulary choice in the editorials of "The Economist".
I have just taken up a tenured lecturer's post in the English Department
at Paris 12.