Review of Variation and Reconstruction
EDITOR: Cravens, Thomas D.
TITLE: Variation and Reconstruction
SERIES: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
ANNOUNCED IN: https://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-1330.html
Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Michigan
The role of variation in historical and comparative linguistics is a
complicated one. While a number of historical linguists have discussed the
role of variation in language change, its role in linguistic reconstruction
has generally been brushed aside (see Fox 1995: 50-51 for some relevant
discussion). The papers collected in this volume take a more optimistic
view of the issue, and address the relationship between variation and
reconstruction from various perspectives, using data from a number of
languages and language families (Germanic data predominates, but evidence
from Romance and several non-Indo-European languages is also considered).
The book contains twelve thematic chapters and an introductory chapter,
arranged alphabetically by author, an index of concepts and languages, and
a brief foreword by the editor.
The volume opens with an introductory essay by Mary K. Niepokuj, 'Variation
and reconstruction: Introduction' (1-16). This chapter sets the stage for
the remainder of the book, first reviewing some possible reasons for the
neglect of variation in linguistic reconstruction and then outlining the
contents of the other papers. The remainder of the chapter discusses
various other issues of importance for the role of variation in linguistic
reconstruction, including naturalness, methodological aspects of
reconstructing variation, and the role of the speaker. All of these issues
are discussed at greater length in the various thematic chapters; their
inclusion in the introductory essay serves to frame the remainder of the book.
The first thematic chapter, 'Microvariability in time and space:
Reconstructing the past from the present' (17-36), by Thomas D. Cravens,
looks at one of the classic puzzles of Romance linguistics, the development
of Latin intervocalic /p t k/ in Italian. While these stops are normally
preserved unchanged in Italian (and in Eastern Romance generally), as in
amica 'female friend' (Latin amica), these correspondences sometimes do not
hold true, as in fregare 'rub' (Latin fricare). In fact, according to Izzo
(1980), approximately 8-12% of the relevant Italian forms show voicing.
Cravens provides a variationist account of this data, arguing that these
developments are 'most plausibly the result of variable rules whose outputs
can overlap and blend, so that if and when decisions regarding phonological
form are forced, the outcomes are lexically specific and idiosyncratically
variable from place to place, in principle from speaker to speaker' (32).
The scene shifts to Wisconsin for the next paper, 'Reconstructing variation
at shallow time depths. The historical phonetics of 19th century German
dialects in the U.S.' (37-58), by Steven R. Geiger and Joseph C. Salmons.
This chapter, a pilot study for Geiger (forthcoming), concentrates on
'changes in the aspiration and/or voicing of /t/ and /d/ in a moribund
Wisconsin German dialect, Koelsch, with roots in the modern city of
Cologne' (37). It first proposes a new way to do reconstruction at shallow
time depths utilizing real time data, and then lays out the relevant
phonetic data, focusing on Voice Onset Time, first from Standard German,
American English, and various German dialects, and then from Koelsch. VOT
variation found in current and older recordings of Koelsch, extracted from
the Max Kade Institute Sound Archives is discussed, as are the phonetics of
the English of Koelsch speakers. The final section of the paper offers a
conclusion and discusses the possible next steps in the project.
The next chapter, 'Social and structural factors in the development of
Dutch urban dialects in the early modern period' (59-88), by Emily L. Goss
and Robert B. Howell, presents 'a set of methodological and theoretical
principles that can be applied to explain the development of urban dialects
in the early modern period' (59). These proposals build on current
approaches to dialect contact like Kerswill and Williams (2000), and
include the following: 'forms found in one dialect, i.e. marked regional
forms, are disfavored. Forms found in two or more dialects, i.e. forms
which are sociolinguistically unmarked, are favored by speakers for whom
social integration is paramount' (60) and 'the adoption of features by a
speaker depends upon his or her social network characteristics' (61).
These principles are then used to analyze the development of the use of
diminutive endings and the /ei/ diphthong in The Hague, based on a corpus
of writings by 13 17th century inhabitants of The Hague, both natives and
newcomers. Goss and Howell argue convincingly that their data supports
their proposed principles, and then suggest that their ideas will 'provide
new insight into the development of urban vernaculars in the early modern
period' (82). Howell (2006) provides a further step in that direction.
Ray Harris-Northall discusses Romance data in 'Reduction of variation as a
feature of the standardization of Castilian Spanish around 1500' (89-101).
The end of the 15th century is often seen as a watershed in the history of
Spanish; a number of significant historical events occurred around that
time (the unification of Castile and Aragon, Columbus' arrival in the New
World, etc.), and the result is that 'scholars have long looked upon the
end of the 15th century as a gift to periodization. It is interpreted by
many as the frontier between the medieval period and the renaissance, or
golden, era of the language' (89). Harris-Northall argues that variation
was not eliminated from Spanish at this time, but was instead brushed
aside, as those variants not selected for the standard language were
stigmatized as 'rustic and uncouth' (100). This claim is supported by data
drawn from a 1503 printing of the Gran Conquista de Ultramar, a history of
the Crusades originally translated into Spanish in the late 13th century.
This text exhibits nonstandard variants of various phenomena, including
certain uses of clitics and some verbal constructions, indicating that the
nonstandard variant survived in written sources for a longer period of time
than the traditional view of the history of Spanish assumes.
The next chapter is Brian D. Joseph's 'On projecting variation back into a
proto-language. With particular attention to Germanic evidence and some
thoughts on ''drift''' (103-118). Joseph focuses largely on three questions:
(1) when can one legitimately invoke variation in a proto-language to solve
a problem in reconstruction, (2) what does the term ''variation'' mean
exactly in this context, and (3) can some types of ''variation'' be more
easily projected back into a proto-language (quotation marks in original)?
First, some methodological preliminaries are discussed, as well as a few
relatively simple phonological case studies (e.g. the failure of Grimm's
Law to apply following [s]). Similar cases from morphology and the lexicon
are then reviewed (e.g. the development of PIE verbal endings in Latin and
Sanskrit). Several cases where invoking variation in a proto-language
yields a sensible solution to a complicated problem are also discussed,
including certain vocalic developments found in West Germanic and the
retraction of initial [s] before stops in German and English. The idea of
drift is also considered here, as Joseph suggests that one way to make
sense of drift (i.e. 'parallel movement by related languages in similar
directions' ) is to link it to variation in the proto-language and the
Cynthia L. Miller's contribution, 'Variation of direct speech
complementizers in Achaemenid Aramaic documents from fifth century B.C.E.
Egypt' (119-143), turns to Semitic. While Folmer (1995) analyzed a number
of instances of language variation in Achaemenid Aramaic, some such cases
escaped his attention, and Miller's paper aims to remedy that defect by
looking at a type of variation not treated by Folmer, namely the variation
between two complementizers used to introduce direct speech in Achaemenid
Aramaic. Miller considers the diachronic origin and distributions of the
two complementizers, as well as their syntactic features and various
sociolinguistic factors, and ultimately concludes that complementizer
choice depends largely on stylistic factors.
James Milroy discusses 'Language change and the speaker. On the discourse
of historical linguistics' (145-163). Milroy argues that the role of the
speaker in language change is often left to one side in favor of
language-internal explanations, and suggests that this situation must be
remedied. He first reviews some earlier speaker-based accounts of language
change (e.g. the early proposals of Sturtevant 1917, which in Milroy's view
resembles the distinction between speaker innovation and linguistic change
argued for in Milroy and Milroy 1985) and then looks at the link between
intention and change. The traditional discourse of historical linguistics
and the influence of ideology on it, as well as the role of
sociolinguistics in language change, are discussed. Milroy's position is
then explicated by means of a discussion of an ongoing change in British
English (the ''Final Release Rule'' in Newcastle, which has to do with the
glottalization of /t/ in certain contexts), which, Milroy suggests, cannot
be accounted for by language-internal factors, and thus demands a
Martha Ratliff looks at 'Prefix variation and reconstruction' (165-178),
with a focus on nominal prefixes in Hmong-Mien. Ratliff first reviews the
current form, function, and distribution of these nominal prefixes, and
then looks at cross-linguistic prefix variation, followed by certain sound
changes 'wherein the vowel of the prefix has collapsed and the initial of
the prefix has displaced the initial consonant of the root' (170), which
have caused difficulties in reconstructing the proto-language. Several
other relevant issues are touched on briefly, e.g. 'family-internal
evidence for the reconstruction and interpretation of initial consonant
clusters' (173), which Ratliff hopes treat more fully in future work.
Ratliff argues that variation makes reconstructing sets of prefixes for
various nouns extremely difficult, calling it 'a fruitless and arbitrary
exercise' (176), but also suggests that understanding the variation
involved in the situation does allow interested scholars to '(1) ignore the
effect of absorbed prefixes in our reconstruction of roots, and (2)
reconstruct a classifying prefix position for nouns' (176).
The next paper is 'On reconstructing a linguistic continuum in Cape Dutch
(1710-1840)' (179-200), by Paul T. Roberge, and, after a brief
introduction, lays out a number of postulates that are relevant to the
formation of Afrikaans (see Roberge 2002, among other publications, for
further discussion of these postulates). These postulates include the
following: 'The Dutch of the European superstrate community was highly
variable' (181) and 'Jargonized forms of Dutch (and English) emerged among
the indigenous Khoikhoi during this ... period' (181). From there Roberge
notes that the corpus found in Deumert (2004) 'reveals a complex pattern of
structured variation that defines a linguistic continuum' (185) and then
strives to reconstruct the same kind of continuum for earlier forms of Cape
Dutch: metropolitan Dutch vs. Acrolectal Cape Dutch vs. Mesolectal Cape
Dutch vs. Basilectal Cape Dutch vs. Cape Dutch Pidgin. Roberge notes that
the last two varieties can only be reconstructed, and takes several steps
in that direction by means of an examination of various types of documents.
Some brief remarks on the reconstruction of sociolinguistic space at the
old Cape are offered, and the chapter closes with the observation that
'[c]hanges in the pattern of variation represent the conscious manipulation
of both linguistic resources and attitudes toward variability on the part
of advocates of the Cape Dutch Vernacular and the emergence of a
standard-language ideology from the last quarter of the nineteenth century'
(197), which, in Roberge's view, also 'underlies the emergence of a focused
variety that we know today as Afrikaans' (197).
The next paper, 'The reconstruction of variability in Proto-Germanic
gender' (201-212), by Frederick W. Schwink, returns to the problem of
reconstructing variation in a proto-language, specifically with regard to
the gender system of Proto-Germanic. The standard Germanic handbooks
normally reconstruct a three gender system for Proto-Germanic; Schwink
suggests that a reconstruction with two genders is preferable and that the
shift from a two gender system to a three gender system 'entailed periods
of language change with variation that may be reflected in variation in the
daughter languages' (201). Other issues touched on here include nouns with
variable gender, variation in gender marking strategies, and the evaluation
of reconstructions. (See Schwink 2004 for a more detailed discussion of
The final chapter of the book is 'Variation as a reflection of contact.
Notes from Southeast Asia' (213-220), by Graham Thurgood. In this brief
paper, Thurgood argues that a good deal of the variation found in Southeast
Asian languages can be traced to language contact. Due to the substantial
role of language contact in this case, Thurgood argues that the
reconstructed proto-language should show significantly less variation than
the attested daughter languages. Thurgood also contends that linguistic
variation deserves more attention than it has received so far, as variation
can yield insights about language contact situations, and therefore about
This book is a mixed bag. Some of the papers are first-rate, well-written,
and very interesting, while others are somewhat pedestrian (although very
few of the papers fall into this latter category). Moreover, in the
foreword, the editor states that ''[t]his book has been a long time coming''
and apologizes for ''the overly long gestation period'' (vii), and some of
the papers unfortunately reflect this delay. For instance, Frederick W.
Schwink observes that his chapter is ''part of a larger project to
investigate the origins and development of grammatical gender in Germanic''
(201 fn. 1), and refers to ''a forthcoming monograph'' (205) of his on the
subject. The forthcoming monograph mentioned here is presumably Schwink
(2004), indicating that Schwink's paper was submitted before 2004 and then
not revised to reflect the later appearance of his book. This delay does
not mean that the book should be neglected, far from it, but prospective
readers should take note that the papers may not necessarily reflect the
most current views of the various authors. The high price of the volume
($126) will probably keep it out of most individuals' hands, but it is
certainly worth reading with care.
Deumert, Ana. 2004. Language standardization and language change. The
dynamics of Cape Dutch. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Folmer, M.L. 1995. The Aramaic language in the Achaemenid period: A study
in linguistic variation. Leuven: Peeters.
Fox, Anthony. 1995. Linguistic reconstruction. An introduction to theory
and method. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geiger, Steven R. forthcoming. A substrate account of Voice Onset Time
(VOT) change in Wisconsin English and Wisconsin German. Doctoral
dissertation, University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Howell, Robert B. 2006. Immigration and koineisation: The formation of
early modern Dutch urban vernaculars. Transactions of the Philological
Society 104: 207-227.
Izzo, Herbert J. 1980. On the voicing of Latin intervocalic /p, t, k/ in
Italian. Italic and Romance. Linguistic Studies in Honor of Ernst
Pulgram, ed. by Herbert J. Izzo, 131-155. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Kerswill, Paul and Ann Williams. 2000. Creating a new town koine:
Children and language change in Milton Keynes. Language in Society 29: 65-115.
Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. 1985. Linguistic change, social network
and speaker innovation. Journal of Linguistics 21: 339-384.
Roberge, Paul T. 2002. Convergence and the formation of Afrikaans.
Journal of Germanic Linguistics 14: 57-93.
Schwink, Frederick W. 2004. The third gender. Studies in the origin and
history of Germanic grammatical gender. Heidelberg: Universitaetsverlag
Sturtevant, Edgar H. 1917. Linguistic change. An introduction to the
historical study of language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marc Pierce is a lecturer in German and Classics at the University of
Michigan. His research interests include historical linguistics, Germanic
linguistics, and phonology.