LINGUIST List 23.3360

Thu Aug 09 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics: Janson (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 09-Aug-2012
From: Jason Doroga <>
Subject: The History of Languages
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AUTHOR: Janson, ToreTITLE: The History of LanguagesSUBTITLE: An IntroductionPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

Jason P. Doroga, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University ofWisconsin-Madison

SUMMARYThis textbook is a highly readable introduction to the history of languagesintended for students and general readers with an interest in history,anthropology, politics and linguistics. Janson (henceforth, J) states in thepreface that even though ''languages are contingent on history'' (xii) far toooften the study of the history of the people who use language is seen as aseparate discipline. This book consistently demonstrates that this should not bethe case. Though the central focus of the work is on the history of standardEuropean languages, other languages such as Arabic and Chinese are considered insome detail.

Part I: Before History (1-47)The scope of Chapter 1 (4-23) is epic and considers the history of humanity fromits origins (J ponders how the gift of language was conferred to Adam by God)continuing to about 12,000 years ago with a brief description of the rise of thenumerous Khoisan languages of southern Africa (with their famous clicks) and theindigenous languages of Australia. The central problem discussed is thedifficulty of establishing criteria for defining what a language is. Classifyingthe world's languages has proven challenging because in many cases the speakersthemselves do not have a name for their own language (in the case of someKhoisan languages) or speakers have established different names for languagesthat do not appear to be substantially different (in the case of Australianlanguages). The question is not resolved in this chapter, though J returns to itlater in the book.

As J acknowledges (24), this work is not a manual of historical linguistics, andthe description of historical changes in society far outweighs the strictlylinguistic content. That being said, Chapter 2 (24-47) introduces one of thecentral tenets of historical linguistics: the concept of language groups and howthese groups spread. For example, the word 'bread' looks similar in English,German ('Brot') and Swedish ('bröd'). Language groups spread for two mainreasons including wars and conquest (Romance, Semitic), as well as the spread ofnew farming techniques (Bantu). The chapter suggests that the establishment of awriting system explains why some language groups have been subject to greatfragmentation in their historical development while others appear to have beenable to resist fragmentation for very long periods of time.

Part II: The basis of history (48-74)Chapter 3 (51-52), which at just two pages is considerably shorter than theother chapters, asserts that ''one of the most important inventions in thehistory of mankind'' (52) is writing. This is a critical chapter, and theimportance of writing is highlighted in almost every subsequent chapter. Forexample Chapter 4 (53-58) discusses the origins of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphicwriting, highlighting the political consequences of this development. J suggeststhat the need to record taxes and receipts is the likely motivation to develop asystem of writing, though it is improbable that the majority of the populationever obtained even basic literacy. The political homogeneity of the kingdom wasstrengthened by the establishment of a single written language. He writes thatancient Egypt marks the first time when ''the language and the state becameallies, as it were, mutually supporting each other'' (55).

Ancient China is another example where J establishes a connection betweenpolitical homogeneity and a common written language, and this is the focus ofChapter 5 (59-74). Like Egypt, the writing system in China developed in an areawith a strong central authority (Beijing) that was used to create an organizedsystem of taxation. Even though there are numerous spoken dialects in China,there has been a unified written language for the country since the time of thefirst emperor Qin (221 B.C.), a written tradition that largely went unchangedfor several thousand years until the recent reforms of the written language thispast century (see Chapter 16). China is one of the most successful politicalstates in the history of civilization in part because it developed one unifiedwritten language early in its history.

Part III: Language expansions (76-118)This section describes three well-known examples of expansion and conquest,comparing the linguistic and political ramifications of the expansion of Greek,Latin and Arabic. Chapter 6 (77-90) establishes a key similarity between theexpansion of Greek and the expansion of Egyptian and Chinese. Although ancientGreece never achieved political union like ancient China, the various states diddevelop a common written language, Greek 'koiné', which was the common languageof Greek administration that was a blend of traditional dialects (86). Thiskoiné was the language that spread across the ever-expanding empire.

Chapter 7 (91-102) describes the expansion of Latin. J says that classical Latinpresents very little evidence of variation, partially because most of the Latinliterature was produced by a handful of men who were in very close contact withthe central authority figures of Imperial Rome. The conquered populationsabandoned their native languages and adopted Latin with almost uniformregularity because of the efficient system of Roman government, commerce andtrade within the Empire and, most importantly, because Latin had established astandard written language. In fact, when the Roman Empire itself was overtakenby Germanic invasions, the conquerors adopted the Latin language of those whomthey conquered because Latin was an established written language whichfacilitated commerce, taxation and other administrative duties.

To conclude this section, in Chapter 8 (103-118) J discusses the expansion ofArabic which has maintained a relatively stable and homogenous written languagesince around 750. Taking advantage of the politically weakened Persian andByzantine empires, the Arabs spread across vast territories, taking with themtheir language and religion. In some parts of the empire, the Arabs managed toestablish their language but not their religion (e.g., the Coptic Church inEgypt) while in other areas they established their religion but not theirlanguage (e.g., the maintenance of the Berber languages across much of NorthAfrica). Although united by a common written language, the Arab world hasexperienced considerable political fragmentation, which has resulted in mutuallyincomprehensible spoken varieties of the language. Despite this diversity in thespoken language, Arabic is still considered a single language for two reasons: aunified written language, and the common belief among different populations thatthey speak a single language.

Part IV: Languages and nations (119-170)This section includes three chapters that explore the relationship betweenlanguage and nationhood. Chapter 9 (121-132) argues that linguists cannot relyon the spoken language to decide if two languages are distinct from one another.In fact languages may be mutually comprehensible (a Swedish speaker almostalways understands a Norwegian speaker) but most everyone agrees that they aretwo separate languages. Rather, the development of separate orthographic systemscontributes to the metalinguistic awareness of two different languages. Forexample, one of the important factors to consider in the fragmentation of Latininto the separate Romance languages is the development of a unique orthographythat more faithfully reflects the sounds of the spoken language rather thanClassical Latin forms. To illustrate this point, J includes a passage from thefamous Strasbourg Oaths from 842, whose orthography illustrates how spoken OldFrench ('salvarai', 'I will support') had diverged from its Classical Latinsource 'salvare habeo'.

The history of English, which emerged as a separate, identifiable languageearlier than the Romance languages, is treated in Chapter 10 (133-155). Unlikethe Roman invaders who did not establish Latin as a permanent language inBritain (though they contributed the Latin alphabet), the Germanic invaders wereable to impose their language in some parts of Britain in a relatively shortamount of time. J summarizes the complex early history of English, and concludesthat English became established as the language of Britain because it haddeveloped a written form (the first English text using Latin characters ratherthan runes was produced as early as 603) and there was a strong union betweenlanguage and state.

Chapter 11 (156-170) discusses the era of the nation state in Europe and thelinguistic consequences of nation building in Europe from the 11th to the 19thcentury. J demonstrates that a national language is a deliberate creation of thestate which is usually based on the dialect that enjoys the most prestigebecause of its association with literary output and political power. In mostcountries in Europe, this prestigious variety relegated the spoken languages,which often lack a literary tradition, to dialectal status.

Part V: Europe and the world (171-219)The major linguistic changes of the last 500 years in the Americas resultingfrom the Portuguese, Spanish and British colonial expansion are discussed inChapter 12 (173-184). The unifying theme of this chapter is that the languagesof the European colonizers were successfully established in the New Worldbecause they provided a written system for administration. The relatively rapidswitch from the numerous indigenous languages of the Americas to one of thethree ''big languages'' (English, Spanish and Portuguese) in the Americas isconsidered to be ''the largest linguistic change in history'' (177).

Chapter 13 (185-203) discusses the creation of new languages during the colonialperiod, mostly arising from the pidginization of European languages in the WestIndies and the development of the various Creole languages of the Americas, suchas Papiamentu (spoken on the island of Curaçao). J summarizes the varioustheories to explain the remarkably similar grammar of most all Creole languagessuch verbal systems with less inflectional morphology.

Chapter 14 (204-219) acknowledges that languages are not intrinsically stableand presents numerous examples of how languages disappear. One might expect thatwhen a 'small' language disappears speakers adopt a 'big' language, for examplespeakers in East Sutherland who abandon their variety of Gaelic and switch toEnglish. However, J demonstrates that this is not always the case. Sometimesspeakers switch to another dialect of the 'small' language rather than a majorone, as seen in the loss of many small dialects of Papua New Guinea and theadvancement of Tok Pisin as the dominant regional language.

Part VI: Recent past, present, future (221-260)A recent development in the history of languages is the overwhelming preferencefor English in an increasingly globalized society. The factors that haveencouraged this heyday of English are discussed in Chapter 15 (223-232). Ofcourse English has not always held this position (consider the fates of French,German and Russian as the preferred international language), but the expansionof the British empire and the (current) economic dominance of the United Statesare two important factors for the present state of English.

Chapter 16 (233-245) considers the role of English in China, and brieflysummarizes the language reforms of the past century in China including thesimplification of written characters, the modernization of antiquated words andgrammatical constructions, and the spread of a common spoken language. Jsuggests that these linguistic reforms are ultimately tied to China's politicalaspirations to be a strong, unified country.

As a conclusion (246-260), the book offers a hypothetical discussion of thelinguistic situation of the world two hundred years from now. Barring any majorpolitical or social revolutions, J believes that most linguistic changes will belinked to the use of writing. Languages that are not used in writing and taughtin school stand little chance of survival. Furthermore, he suggests that in twohundred years each nation will continue to use their national language whichwill increasingly be the only languages that survive, assuming the tendency ofnation states to favor one language continues.

EVALUATIONThe book's central goal is to describe the relationship between language andsociety for a non-specialist audience. It is clear that J believes that the twoare so integrally related that the study of the history of a language isolatedfrom the sociohistorical context in which the language developed is deficient,and J supports this with clear evidence from a number of languages andhistorical periods. While this claim is not new, J synthesizes information fromdifferent disciplines (including ethnography, religion, history and politics) tosupport his fundamental claim. More importantly, J is able to make comparisonsamong seemingly disparate language groups and vastly different time periods tohighlight patterns of cyclical language change. For example, he compares thecurrent fragmentation of spoken Arabic to the fragmentation of spoken Latinduring the Middle Ages in Europe. Another example is seen in the similar fatesof Latin in England and Arabic in Persia. Both reinforce the idea that seeminglyinevitable linguistic change can falter because of political changes.

Throughout the work J debunks several popular conceptions about language, notunlike the work of Bauer and Trudgill (1998) but studied from a diachronicperspective. For example he demonstrates that the modern European languages arenot more advanced than others (Khoisan languages), that highly inflectionallanguages such as German are not more difficult or complex than languages thatlack inflection, and that Creole speakers are not intellectually inferiorbecause they do not speak a ''real'' language. Even though the work as a wholeoffers compelling evidence that languages that lack a strong written traditionseldom enjoy political or economical prestige, J does not promulgate the myththat written languages are superior. He indicates that all languages have equalpotential, but some are simply used for different reasons. In fact, he suggeststhat ''languages are like people in that not everyone can do everything'' (82).

The claims and evidence offered are balanced, and J avoids making tidyconclusions that account for the historical development of all the languagesconsidered in the work. For example, J argues that large parts of the RomanEmpire adopted Latin as their first language (and abandoned their nativelanguage) because there was a strong central government in Rome. However, inother chapters J highlights that this is not a universal requirement for alllanguage expansion, noting that the Germanic languages spread without anystrong, centralized power that mirrored Rome. When J makes comparisons that seemanachronistic (e.g., comparing the 12th-century adoption of the new writtenRomance models in Europe to the 19th-century adoption of modern, writtenChinese), he notes that some aspects of the comparison may not hold.

Like J's previous published work (2002, 2004), the core sections of the bookdeal with the expansion of European languages as well as Arabic and Chinese, andit is in these chapters where J makes his strongest points. A few of theperipheral chapters (most notably Chapter 1 ''Unwritten languages'') appear tosimply summarize various hypotheses on a topic without articulating any firmposition; however, the scope of time considered in the book (two million yearsin the past to two million years in the future) is ambitious.

More importantly, J occasionally simplifies a topic and omits relevant details.One example is the abandonment of the indigenous languages of the Americasduring the colonial expansion of Spain and Portugal in the Americas. J arguesthat the indigenous languages were abandoned as native populations sought accessto administrative and cultural centers. Some important details of this massivelanguage shift are missing from this account, such as the establishment of awritten, indigenous language in Brazil (Tupi) after the arrival of thePortuguese (Teyssier 1982) or the incredible (oftentimes forced) pressure onspeakers of native languages to switch to the dominant language. Additionally,although J sees the orthography documented in the Strasbourg Oaths of 842 asevidence of the emergence of Old French, he omits important details about themonastic and liturgical reforms of Carolingian France that motivated theorthographic changes (Wright 1982). Admittedly, it is impossible to include allthe relevant details in an introductory text, and the omissions do not detractfrom the main arguments presented.

Those who are familiar with J's 2002 publication will find several chapters ofthat work reproduced in the present book. Though several chapters have beenadded and other ideas refined or reworked, much of the core material (andbibliography) remains the same. Yet the pedagogical value of the textbook formatis enhanced by its organization into short sections and succinct summariesprovided at the end of each chapter. Additionally, short review questions and alist of thought-provoking discussion topics and possible research topics appearat the end of each part of the book. Even though there are a few authentic,textual examples interspersed throughout the book, more would be useful.

In sum, this textbook reinforces the idea that the study of language is linkedto the study of history and society. It is appropriate for an introductorycourse in historical linguistics (though supplemental readings in historicalphonology and morphology would need to be included in the syllabus), and it willgive the student a solid overview of how societal changes effect language, aswell as spark interest in a wide variety of topics such as language policy,language contact and language shift.

WORKS CITEDBauer, Laurie and Peter Trudgill, eds. 1998. Language Myths. New York: PenguinBooks.

Janson, Tore. 2002. Speak: A Short History of Languages. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Janson, Tore. 2004. A Natural History of Latin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teyssier, Paul. 1982. História da língua portuguesa. Lisboa: Sa da Costa.

Wright, Roger. 1982. Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and CarolingianFrance. Liverpool: Cairns.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERJason Doroga is a doctoral candidate in Hispano-Romance Philology andLinguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current researchfocuses on the grammaticalization of the past participle in compound tensesin Spanish and Portuguese. He also studies the morphology of participles inSpanish periphrastic passive constructions.

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