Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Göran Hammarström TITLE: Fundamentals of Diachronic Linguistics SERIES TITLE: Linguistics Edition 84 PUBLISHER: Lincom YEAR: 2011
Christopher D. Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University
SUMMARY Hammarström states that the purpose of the book is to provide “new viewpoints and elaborations on [his] earlier publications” (5); he specifically lists six of his previous works, written between 1965 and 1999, that provide the grounding for his current work (though many more are referenced throughout the book).
The book is divided into 11 parts:
In part 1, the introduction, Hammarström summarizes the book, pointing out that “Many linguists, including myself, have found that in the last 50 years many publications have used complicated formulations and rule systems which look impressive but say little or nothing of interest about language” (5). He goes on to explain that since Ferdinand de Saussure made the distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistics in 1916, he [Hammarström] will use the term ‘historical linguistics’ for older orientations (e.g., the work done prior to 1916 -- largely the work done in the 19th century), and ‘diachronic linguistics’ to refer to the “newer orientations” post-Saussure. He states that one of the major pitfalls of post-Saussurian linguistics is that many linguists misunderstand (and misapply) Saussure’s definitions and explanations of synchrony and diachrony. Hammarström goes on to claim that language change based on cause and effects does not exist, but that variatio delectat is the basic principle which drives language change. He also refers readers to his Fundamentals of Synchronic Linguistics (2008) for “more units and viewpoints than other accounts” (5).
Hammarström continues by offering a history of orientations, approaches, and viewpoints in part 2. He covers Structuralism, The Prague School, and Generativism and more fully explains the difference between historical and diachronic linguistics (introduced in part 1). Parts 2 and 3 address the difference between synchrony and diachrony, referring again to Saussure’s terminology and the fact that “... not all modern linguistics, whether they all would call themselves phonologists, structuralists, or something else, have understood Saussure’s synchrony correctly” (20). Not only does he posit that there is a disparity between Saussure’s definition of ‘synchronic linguistics’ and modern interpretations of it, but he also posits, in part 3, that other terms are misused. He states that Martinet and Chomsky misuse terminology like ‘explanation’ and ‘explain’ by conflating the meanings and applying the terms too broadly.
In part 4, Hammarström elaborates on his view that language changes are “different from how they are generally understood” (21), including his ideas that language changes are unpredictable, cause one “well-functioning” feature to another “well-functioning” one, and are best described through sociolinguistic methods. He then refers readers to his 1966 work, Diachronische Linguistik (1966), to better understand how “phonemes are added, disappear, or merge” (21).
Part 5.1 examines phonemic, prosodemes, syllabemes, (according to Hammarström, “coarticulations stretched over phonemes”), morphemes, lexemes, sememes, and syntagmemes. These terms are used but not fully defined; for example, his definition of ‘prosodeme’ is mentioned in a footnote: “Prosodemes of various kinds are defined are described in some detail in my publications 1998a, p. 103-117, and 2008, p. 11-15” (p. 39). Part 5.2 examines the β-level of contouremes and stylemes. He elaborates on the γ-level, writing about idiolect, sociolect, and dialect, and finishes with the δ-level, and the ε-level. In all, there are five levels of distinction; these distinctions are best understood as a continuation of his previous works, as the levels (like the vocabulary) are not extensively defined in this volume. The five levels are meant to represent the different aspects of language change, from sounds to syntax.
Parts 6, 7, and 8 deal with the above levels and features in regard to the following areas: changes in written language (part 6), spoken language changing written language (part 7), and written language changing spoken language (part 8).
Parts 9, 10, and 11 are a Conclusion, References, and Author Index, respectively.
EVALUATION Overall, the book is relatively short (67 pages) but packed densely with information; it has a cohesive flow and dialogue with examples mainly from Romance and Germanic languages. The font is very small and difficult on the eyes to read; the book could have benefitted from a much larger font size. It is abundantly clear that the author has done extensive reading, writing, and reflecting on the subject; however, only the author’s own works are listed in the references section. Hammarström cites extensively in text and in footnotes, but does not provide the reader with a list of references beyond his own publications (though there is an Author Index, which points readers to the pages with the bibliographic information in footnotes). This is a major shortcoming of the book; most students and beginning researchers would not find this book accessible, as it lacks a comprehensive bibliography and subject index. In order to ground themselves in the content, readers would have to go page-by-page and note the pages on which important concepts are mentioned (or footnotes where bibliographic information is given).
The book is intended for specialists in diachronic linguistics who are well read in both the field’s history and schools of thought, as well as major theories not just in diachronic linguistics, but also phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, information structure, and sociolinguistics. Above all, the reader will be at a loss as the author makes the a priori assumption (clearly alluded to in the introduction) that the reader is familiar with his previous works. For example, as noted above, explicit definitions of key terms, such as ‘prosodeme’, are not included in the text. Instead, the author refers readers to his previous works (some of which will not be accessible to all readers, e.g. those written in German and Spanish). Regarding the levels to which Hammarström refers (e.g., β, γ), the back cover of his earlier book Fundamentals of Synchronic Linguistics (2007) provides some insight: “The α-level deals with phonemes, prosodemes, syllabemes, the β-level with contouremes and stylemes, the γ-level with idiolemes, sociolemes, and dialemes, the δ-level with proxemes and kinemes, and the ε-level with text aspects.” In other words, in order to follow the discussion, one must read the entire book from cover to cover, stopping to note references that will be necessary to follow the discussion, read the prerequisite works, and then reread the book. The reader also should have a reading knowledge of German, French, and Spanish, as pivotal quotes are provided in the original language without a gloss and many references cited were written in the above languages.
A major part of the theory is variatio delectat (a term borrowed from Cicero). The author states, “The motive seems most often to be the pleasure of variation, variatio delectat (β1). A speaker says something new, which may be a sound, a word or a longer construction, thinking it sounds good, funny, impressive or such like ... . Perhaps a speaker wants to express his personality (γ1). In many cases this speaker is not imitated by anyone and one forgets what he has said. However, the new may become a language innovation if it spreads to a number of other speakers and is incorporated into the language. It helps the spreading of the innovation if the innovator and those who agree with him have prestige. A high degree of solidarity in the innovating group would also be helpful” (22). This quotation nicely summarizes Hammarström’s theory of language change, showing that it is largely based on sociolinguistic factors rather than grammatical explanations. He comments, “I assume that no speech community has never adopted a system of sounds that does not function well. When the innovation happens, the speakers change one well functioning sound for another well functioning sound because they like the new sound better” (15). In fact, he claims that since human language is largely unpredictable, attempting to consider how languages might change in the future will not be very successful (13). His notion of language change challenges the work of many researchers, such as Arlotto (1972), Bynon (1999), Campbell (2004), Crowley (2002), Hopper and Traugott (2003), and Trask (1996). Researchers such as these (and the majority of those who work in linguistic typology) use concepts such as grammaticalization (focusing then on grammatical reasons that may drive language change) to show that there is some degree of predictability in language change that is not predicated upon speaker choice.
Because Hammarström’s primary goal for this book is to expand on his previous works and ideas (as stated above), he does meet that goal. His work could be expanded in the future to include languages, such as African languages, that have extensive bilingual (or even trilingual) speech communities, in which the languages are in competition. It would be interesting to see how his notions on language change (especially that changes are results of speaker choice) could be applied to such speech communities.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Christopher Sams received a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature
(Hispanic Linguistics Specialization) from SUNY Buffalo. He has taught
courses at the college level in Spanish, Italian, English, and linguistics.
His research interests include linguistic typology and universals, second
language acquisition, foreign language teaching methodology, historical
linguistics, and forensic linguistics.