LINGUIST List 14.2342

Fri Sep 5 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Hickey, ed. (2003)

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  • patrick, Motives for Language Change

    Message 1: Motives for Language Change

    Date: Thu, 04 Sep 2003 14:12:40 +0000
    From: patrick <>
    Subject: Motives for Language Change

    Hickey, Raymond, ed. (2003). Motives for Language Change. Cambridge University Press, 298pp, hardcover ISBN 0521793033.

    Announced at

    Patrick Studer, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland.

    The title of the present volume, with its reference to motives for language change, may mislead the reader into thinking that this book concentrates on agency as a main cause for language evolution. But this first impression is wrong: A look into the volume reveals an impressive collection of studies which critically review activities in the field of diachronic linguistics and offer suggestions for future research. The book, which is one of two volumes published in honour of Roger Lass's 65th birthday, is edited and introduced by Raymond Hickey. While for the original festschrift papers were included which looked at specific phenomena of language change, the Cambridge edition reviewed here examines the more general principles of internal and external forces at work in linguistic evolution. The volume is divided into six parts of varying length: Part II (linguistic models and language change) and part V (contact-based explanations) receive the most extensive treatment in the book. General considerations regarding language change (part I), grammaticalisation (part III), and the typological perspective (part VI) are covered with two contributions each, while the social context for language change (part IV) stands apart with only one chapter.

    Quite appropriately, the book starts with the two short introductory chapters on the phenomenon of language change in general (part I). Peter Matthews opens the discussion in his paper on change in E-language. He addresses the Chomskyan distinction between I-language, which is subject to laws, and ?E-language?, speech as it is ?externalised?, and relates it to processes of linguistic change. Comparing different studies on the issue, Matthews challenges this view and, by posing relevant questions, manages to draw attention to the fluidity and ultimate failure of such a distinction. Frederick J. Newmeyer follows a similar line of approach in that he addresses the roles of formal (structural) and functional (sociolinguistic) factors of language change. The author analyses the respective advantages and problems of formal and functional explanations, finding that language change appeals to both strands and that these strands must go hand in hand in explaining evolutionary processes in language.

    The linguistic models considered in part II are the following: theory of metaphors, S-curves, suppletive morphology, and optimality theory. Part II begins with a contribution by Jean Aitchison who discusses the function of metaphor in theory building in the past and its bearing to the present, taking as starting-point Lass?s note that ?theory often (maybe normally) is the formalization of metaphor? (39). The author explores changes in the imagery used to describe language, reaching the conclusion that static images of language long prevailed over a dynamic view and that linguists should thus be aware of the power and traps of metaphorical views about language. Aitchison's paper is followed by an essay by David Denison who exposes weaknesses in S-curves as a model to describe the shape of language change. Before illustrating the problems of S-curves in a number of syntactic and stylistic examples, Denison critically analyses the theory and origin of the term. Richard Hogg continues the debate by exposing inconsistencies in our common understanding of the morphological system. Hogg looks at the development of suppletive morphology in the history of English, wondering especially at the regularity with which 'irregular' forms emerge. April McMahon's paper on optimality theory and language change, finally, brings us back to a more theoretical track. Using the example of the Great Vowel Shift, she tries to find out how the idea of a set of innate and universal constraints can be applied to explain phonological change and whether OT has any explanatory force in the analysis of such developments.

    Part III (grammaticalisation) includes David Lightfoot's elaborate essay on causes of changes in grammar. The author stresses the importance of local causes, i.e. individual situational factors, which may offer some explanation as to why a grammar acquires one feature and rejects another. Lightfoot mentions the auxiliary system in English in support of his view but at the same time points out fundamental limitations of this approach. Elizabeth Closs Traugott in her paper on the directionality of language change searches for evidence in favour of a unidirectional change from subjectification to intersubjectification. Drawing evidence from English and Japanese, Traugott traces diachronic meaning shifts towards intersubjectivity in discourse markers.

    Part IV is entirely devoted to the role of the speaker in language change. James Milroy pursues the question of endogenous versus external induction of change. Challenging Lass?s traditional view of endogenously induced change, Milroy discusses an example from AAVE to demonstrate that social factors may not only play an important role in language change but goes on to claim that the theoretical fundament on which such discussions traditionally rest (the internal / external dichotomy) may need to be reconsidered in future research.

    The chapters on contact-based explanations (part V) address the questions of endogeny, social symptoms of contact, the interface between phonetics and phonology, and the process of dialect formation. The section opens with Markku Filppula and his re-examination of the roles of endogeny and language contact. Like Milroy in part IV, Filppula uses Lass?s hypothesis of ?parsimony? as an opportunity to discuss examples from the Celtic-English speech community in which the ?parsimonious? principle does not exclusively apply, showing that further (contact-based) factors may need to be considered to fully explain phenomena of language change. Malcolm Ross looks at language contact from the perspective of speech communities. Analysing different structures of communities in contact with different lects, he tries to identify preliminary diagnostic symptoms which allow us to reconstruct general types of non-catastrophic change caused by language contact. Gregory K. Iverson and Jospeh C. Salmons in turn re-visit the great sound changes in Germanic (umlaut and High German Consonant Shift), searching for phonetic underpinnings of phonological evolution. The study reveals the porous boundaries between phonetics and phonology when it comes to analysing sound changes and explains considerations of coarticulation inherent in such processes. Raymond Hickey concludes the series of contact-based essays in his long chapter on the process of new dialect formation in New Zealand. Basing his observations on Gordon, Trudgill et al.'s examinations of ONZE (Origin of New Zealand English Corpus), Hickey reveals several problems and inconsistencies in previous research. The author warns against oversimplification in interpreting corpus data, offering alternative explanations to some findings and suggesting a model of supraregionalisation which may explain processes of dialect focusing.

    The two final chapters of the book (part VI) deal with the typological perspective. Bernard Comrie?s contribution is the shorter of the two, addressing the limitations of linguistic reconstruction as a tool in historical linguistics. It is particularly in grammaticalisation theory where Comrie sees some potential for approximating past stages of a language. While Comrie questions the general methodology upon which linguistic reconstruction is based, Raymond Hickey moves on to more concrete phenomena from early Celtic to demonstrate that phonetic weakening in words which were induced by initial stress accent came to be reinterpreted as systemic. He goes on to present how this process triggered further changes in Modern Irish.

    The volume, seen as a whole, marks out the terrain of language change by asking a set of relevant questions: Where and when do languages change, which tools do we as researchers have at our disposal to describe such phenomena, and, ultimately, why do languages change at all. While the authors approach these questions from various angles and perspectives, they are similar in that they all focus on stumbling blocks in the (theoretical or methodological) framework of their fellow researchers before they go on to present their own ideas and conclusions. Some authors (e.g. Hickey, Filppula, Iverson/Salmons, Hogg) adduce detailed evidence about specific language shifts to illustrate different processes of change (as, for example, from Irish, German, AAVE, New Zealand English, Oceanic Austronesian Languages, etc.); other contributions are more general in that they essentially deal with or test the validity of theoretical and methodological considerations on a broader, universal level (e.g. Aitchison, Comrie, Matthews, McMahon, Newmeyer). In general, the volume is more theory based than applied or empirical, which ties in with the purpose of the book set out by the editor in his introduction.

    There is no doubt that the study is an excellent guide to a principled explanation of language change: Not only does it treat the subject matter from different corners, but it is generally very reader friendly as it provides the introductory information that is necessary for the non-specialist to follow the main line of argumentation alongside new insights that may be relevant for the professional researcher. The book is a valuable resource for anyone planning to undertake diachronic research because it offers advice and orientation by leading figures in the field of language change. At the same time, it may equally be used by college teachers who wish to update themselves on issues of diachronic linguistics.

    However, there are some points I would like to point out here: While every effort was made to organise the book into different topics and to harmonise the contributions, there are some (thematic) overlaps and repetitions in the volume. Some sources are quoted more than once in a similar context, which would not happen, for example, in a monograph. Thus, even if reaching different conclusions and looking from a different perspective, Filppula (162) and Milroy (144), for instance, both explain Lass?s principle of parsimony independently. It is obvious that these overlaps are due to the fact that the study is a collection of essays written by different scholars from different backgrounds which could not be coordinated in every single aspect. Another point which makes the present volume different from, for example, conference proceedings are the frequent references to Lass. This may be explained by the fact that the volume was originally intended as a festschrift. One may doubt, however, if Lass had received the same amount of attention in a general volume on the topic. Finally, although most essays are easily accessible and understandable (notably Matthews and Newmeyer), others may sometimes be difficult to understand for readers not familiar with the discourse (e.g. the papers by Closs Traugott and Iverson / Salmons).

    One thing that may strike the reader of this volume is the many 'inconclusive' conclusions suggested by the articles. Many contributors end by asking a set of questions rather than by providing answers. One recurrent (and, no doubt, central) question is WHY changes occur in a language and whether current linguistic models have enough explanatory force to account for such changes (cf. Newmeyer 32; Milroy 156; McMahon 94-95; Lightfoot 121). The reader gets the impression that even for well known and documented language changes (e.g. German umlaut) research has barely scratched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to explaining things. Perhaps one implicit conclusion by the study might be that more attention must be paid to 'local causes' (Lightfoot 119) and that abstraction and generalisation from these local causes is necessarily limited by the very dynamic and unpredictable nature of language.

    These general comments, however, do in no way lessen my appreciation of the book as an excellent and valuable source of information and I am sure that any reader, with a general or specific interest in the topic, will find something to pick up on.


    Patrick Studer teaches in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland, currently working on the completion of his PhD thesis about the development of early English media language.