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Review of  Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Stefan Hartmann
Book Title: Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Lyle Campbell
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.3297

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AUTHOR: Campbell, Lyle
TITLE: Historical Linguistics
SUBTITLE: An Introduction, third edition
YEAR: 2013

Stefan Hartmann, German Department (Deutsches Institut), University of Mainz

The third edition of Lyle Campbell’s textbook on historical linguistics gives an overview of a broad range of topics historical linguists are concerned with. In seventeen chapters, Campbell introduces key notions and methods of historical linguistics and demonstrates their application with numerous examples and exercises.

In the introduction (Chapter 1), Campbell clearly defines the scope of historical-linguistic inquiry and gives some examples of language change from the history of English. Chapter 2 is dedicated to sound change. He emphasizes the Neogrammarian hypothesis that sound changes suffer no exceptions and demonstrates its importance for reconstructing proto-languages on the basis of the comparative method. It is shown that apparent counterexamples to the Neogrammarian hypothesis can be interpreted as regular sound changes as well. Furthermore, Campbell offers a detailed typology of sound changes. He shows how a relative chronology of sound changes can be obtained and how several sound changes can be seen as interrelated (e.g. in Grimm’s law: *b > p filling the gap left behind by *p > f in a pull-chain scenario).

Chapter 3 deals with borrowing not only of lexical items, but of all kinds of linguistic material, between languages. Campbell discusses motivations for borrowing words from other languages (e.g., the need to name new concepts and prestige), how words are borrowed, how they are integrated into the target language, and how to determine the direction of borrowing. He shows how loanwords can contribute to reconstructing change as well as to understanding the relative chronology of changes in a language.

In chapter 4, analogical change is discussed. Campbell distinguishes analogical levelling, which reduces the number of allomorphs a form has (e.g. English old/elder/eldest > old/older/oldest), from analogical extension, which extends an existing alternation of a pattern to new cases (e.g. English dive/dived > dive/dove, in analogy with strong verbs such as drive/drove).

Chapter 5 introduces one of the central techniques of historical linguistics, the comparative method, showing how a proto-language can be reconstructed from a family of genetically related languages. Campbell offers step-by-step instruction on how the comparative method can be applied in practice and analyses a case study from the Finno-Ugric family.

Chapter 6 deals with linguistic classification, i.e. grouping languages into language families and determining which languages within one language family are more closely related to each other. The notion of language isolates is introduced and distinguished from language families with only one surviving member. Campbell shows how knowledge about the history of language isolates can be obtained in the absence of related languages by means of, among other ways, internal reconstruction, philological studies, and considering evidence from loanwords and toponyms. Then he discusses several examples of subgrouping, i.e. the internal classification of language families.

Chapter 7 is dedicated to models of linguistic change. Addressing the well-known debate between proponents of the “family-tree model” and the “wave theory”, he aims to show that these can be reconciled. While the family-tree model assumes a single proto-language that splits up into daughter languages through continued linguistic change, the “wave theory” assumes that linguistic changes spread outward concentrically, becoming weaker with the distance from their central point. While the former approach is guided by the Neogrammarian hypothesis that sound laws suffer no exceptions, the latter contests this by postulating that each word has its own history. Reviewing evidence from dialectology and sociolinguistics, and what has been discussed under the label of ‘lexical diffusion’, he arrives at the conclusion that “sound change is regular within its own system, though dialect borrowing and various influences from outside the system can result in changes which are less like regular exceptionless sound change.” (p. 197) Therefore, he argues that both hypotheses complement each other and are needed to explain sound change.

Chapter 8 introduces another key method of historical linguistics, namely internal reconstruction, i.e. the reconstruction of a so-called pre-language (as opposed to the proto-language obtained from the comparative method) exclusively from evidence within one single language. Again, step-by-step instruction is offered and illustrated with examples from different languages, e.g. Tojolabal (Mayan), Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan), and Classical Greek. Importantly, the limitations of internal reconstruction are also pointed out by applying the method to languages such as English and German, for which evidence obtained by means of the comparative method is available.

Chapters 9 through 11 deal with semantic and lexical, morphological, and syntactic change, respectively. Chapter 9 offers an extensive typology of semantic and lexical changes and discusses attempts to explain semantic change with regard to cognitive and sociocultural considerations. Chapter 10 discusses numerous cases of morphological change as well as explanatory approaches and the question of how morphology can be reconstructed with the help of the comparative method. In Chapter 11, reanalysis, extension, and syntactic borrowing are discussed as mechanisms of syntactic change. In this connection, generative approaches and grammaticalization theory are discussed. Campbell shows that many cases of syntactic change cast doubt on the generative assumption that language acquisition can be considered the primary locus of language change. Concerning grammaticalization, he questions its independent status as a mechanism of change in its own right. Chapter 11 concludes with a discussion of syntactic reconstruction.

Chapter 12 is concerned with language contact and areal linguistics. The main tenets and methods of areal linguistics are introduced and the notions of pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages are discussed with regard to language change. The last subchapter is dedicated to language extinction. Campbell lists the structural changes that endangered languages tend to undergo and points out the importance of studying these languages: “To understand fully what is possible in human languages, we need reliable descriptions of languages representing the full range of independent language families” (p. 317).

A variety of attempts to explain language change are introduced in Chapter 13, starting with “the ones we can safely eliminate from any theory of linguistic change” (p. 323), e.g. climatic or geographical determinism and racial or anatomic determinism. Furthermore, he rejects the view that societal structure determines linguistic change, leading to a correlation between society type and the complexity of a language. Distinguishing between internal and external causes, Campbell mentions physical and psychological factors such as the limitations of human muscle control or constraints on perception, processing and learning as possible internal causes, while external factors include social evaluation, literacy, language planning, and language contact. With examples from different languages, he shows how various causal factors can interact.

Chapter 14 on “Distant Genetic Relationship” also offers an overview of how words can be falsely identified as cognates in lexical comparison. For example, onomatopoeic words and nursery forms (such as ‘mama’, ‘papa’) tend to be similar across languages. Moreover, words identified as cognates can turn out to be borrowed forms, and in some cases, their similarity may be due to chance. Campbell argues that many hypotheses proposing distant genetic relationships between languages do not hold up to methodological scrutiny. The Altaic hypothesis, for example, which would group Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic, rests on shared features frequently occurring in unrelated languages.

The role of written records is treated in Chapter 15. After a brief survey of different writing systems and their origins, Campbell demonstrates how different kinds of linguistic change can be reconstructed from philological investigations and how phonetic information can be derived from written records by considering, among others, rhymes, spelling variants, and the integration of material from foreign languages.

Chapter 16 deals with the study of linguistic prehistory, also known as linguistic palaeontology. With the example of Proto-Indo-European, Campbell shows how aspects of its cultural inventory can be reconstructed from its reconstructed vocabulary and how these insights can be linked up with archaeological findings to obtain clues as to the geographical location of the speakers of the proto-language (their “homeland”).

The last chapter deals with quantitative approaches to historical linguistics. The method of glottochronology as well as other, more recent approaches such as probability models and network models are introduced. However, Campbell remains sceptical of the majority of these methods, especially given that most of them rely on lexical data only.

This is the third edition of Lyle Campbell’s well-established textbook, and it retains the virtues of the previous editions: The main tenets and key methods of historical linguistics are accurately explained and illustrated with a vast amount of examples from a broad range of languages. In line with his goal to give a hands-on introduction to the discipline that focuses on “how to do historical linguistics” (p. xv), almost every chapter is rounded off with a number of exercises.

Compared to the first and second editions, the third edition has been thoroughly revised and extended. New chapters on morphological change and on quantitative approaches in historical linguistics have been added, and the chapter on areal linguistics has been integrated into a chapter on language contact, which also considers the role of pidgins and creoles, mixed languages, and endangered languages for the study of linguistic change.

Importantly, Campbell succeeds in his attempt “to present a reasonably unbiased account of opposing opinions” (p. xvi). Most notably, he presents a fairly comprehensive and balanced account of grammaticalization theory, which he has severely criticized in earlier publications (e.g. Campbell 2001).

Given Campbell’s inclination towards fine-grained typologies and lists of examples running many pages, his introduction is not necessarily an easy read, but it is a very rewarding one. Although the book is written in a style that is overall very clear and accessible, it requires a solid background in general linguistics and is therefore hardly recommended as a first encounter with historical linguistics, let alone with linguistics in general. For advanced readers, however, it lives up to its reputation as one of the best and most comprehensive textbooks on historical linguistics.

Campbell, Lyle (2001): What’s wrong with Grammaticalization? In: Language Sciences 23, 113-161.
Stefan Hartmann is a PhD student in historical linguistics at the University of Mainz, Germany. He is currently conducting a corpus-based study on diachronic changes in German nominalization patterns. Apart from historical and corpus linguistics, his research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, construction grammar, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780262518499
Pages: 512
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