LINGUIST List 23.3525

Thu Aug 23 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics; Linguistics Theories: Maitz (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 23-Aug-2012
From: Stefan Hartmann <>
Subject: Historische Sprachwissenschaft
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EDITOR: Maitz, PéterTITLE: Historische SprachwissenschaftSUBTITLE: Erkenntnisinteressen, Grundlagenprobleme, DesiderateSERIES TITLE: De Gruyter Studia Linguistica Germanica. Vol. 110.PUBLISHER: De GruyterYEAR: 2012

Stefan Hartmann, Deutsches Institut, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

SUMMARY"Where is historical linguistics headed?" ["Wohin steuert die HistorischeSprachwissenschaft?"] -- This was the central question of a workshop held atDebrecen University in September 2009. 14 papers presented there have now beencollected in the volume "Historische Sprachwissenschaft: Erkenntnisinteressen,Grundlagenprobleme, Desiderate" ["Historical linguistics: epistemologicalinterests, foundational problems, desiderata"]. All contributions are in German.

In his opening chapter, editor Péter Maitz traces the history of the disciplineup to the present "status quo", focusing especially on the heterogeneity ofcurrent (German) historical linguistics. Drawing on Kuhn's ([1962] 1970)"Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and anticipating the results of an ongoingmeta-scientific research project (cf. Maitz 2006), he stipulates three periodsin the history of the discipline which can be distinguished according to twomajor criteria: a) the stability of the discipline's foundations, i.e. theextent to which there is a consensus about the norms and values guiding theresearch activities, and b) the rigidness of the boundary between the scientificcommunity of a discipline and its scientific environment. The 19th century,according to Maitz, was characterized by a relatively broad consensus on(historical-comparative, later neogrammarian) research norms and methods as wellas by a clearly demarcated scientific community. This -- in Maitz's term --"progressive" period was then followed by a period of "stagnation" in the firsthalf of the 20th century. Although the scientific community maintained bothsolid group boundaries and stable disciplinary foundations, their methodssuffered a severe loss of prestige and were radically questioned. A major turnthen occurred in the 1970s, leading to the current third period characterized byinstable foundations (reflected in a variety of approaches) and less rigid groupboundaries. Furthermore, Maitz discusses whether historical linguistics shouldbe considered an "immature" science in Kuhn's sense and to what extent Kuhn'stheory can be applied to this discipline (and the humanities in general) in thefirst place.

In "Verstehen wir den Sprachwandel richtig?" ["Do we understand language changeproperly?"], Dieter Cherubim poses four major questions for any theory oflanguage change: (1) What is language change?, (2) How can we detect languagechange?, (3) How can we model language change in its different stages?, (4) Howcan we trace motivations for or even causes of language change?. Approachinglanguage change as a fundamental working principle of language itself, heproposes a five-stage model of language change comprising the phases of (1)motivation, (2) innovation, (3), diffusion, (4) integration, and (5)consequences (i.e. chain reactions in the language system motivated by anearlier change).

"Sprachwandel: Ursachen und Wirkungen" ["Language change: cause and effect"] byJenő Kiss discusses the interconnections of the three factors language, languageuse, and language user in a theory of language change, language users beingexplicitly conceived of as both biological and social beings. Kiss argues thatthe mechanism of homeostasis, according to which "any living organism isconstantly interacting with its environment and therefore constantly changing ina way that allows it to uphold its inner state of balance and its organicfunctions" (Kiss, p. 52, my translation), plays a key role in language change.This entails that causes of language change can only be found in the linguisticactivity performed by bio-psycho-socially determined human beings (p. 59).

Damaris Nübling reflects on "the mutual benefit of historical linguistics andlanguage typology" ["Vom gegenseitigen Nutzen von HistorischerSprachwissenschaft und Sprachtypologie"]. With three examples, she illustrateshow linguistic typology -- or rather, different typologies -- can beoperationalized to explain language change: 1) The distribution of Germanlinking elements (e.g. Freund-es-kreis, lit. "friend-LINKING ELEMENT-circle"'circle of friends') can be explained in terms of the development of German from'syllable' to 'word language' (in the sense of Szczepaniak 2007, see below); 2)some changes in Early New High German verbal inflection (c. 1350-1650) can beexplained by Bybee's (1985) typology of relevance; 3) the diachronic developmentof German pronouns of address as delineated by Simon (2003) can be accounted forwith the help of Brown and Levinson's (1987) universal typology of politeness.

In "Lautwandel verstehen" ["Understanding phonological change"], RenataSzczepaniak sketches the typology of syllable vs. word languages and thedevelopment of German from syllable to word language. This process manifestsitself in numerous sound changes highlighting word boundaries, such asword-final consonantal neutralization ("Auslautverhärtung") and consonantepenthesis. She illustrates the consequences of profiling the phonological wordwith the example of German genitive variation ("des Pferd-s" vs. "des Pferd-es"'the horse-GEN'): the choice of the genitive form depends on a) the phonologicalsize and complexity of the base, and b) the quality and quantity of the finalconsonant.

Anna Molnár explores "What research on grammaticalization and historical grammarcould tell each other" ["Was Grammatikalisierungsforschung und HistorischeGrammatik einander zu sagen hätten"]. She deplores the lack of interactionbetween these fields and elucidates how the description of historical grammarscould benefit from grammaticalization research, and vice versa. Using theexamples of German modal particles, verbs, and adverbs, she shows both divergingepistemological interests and possibilities for cross-fertilization in the twoapproaches: While (traditional) grammarians have to make decisions about wordclass categorization, grammaticalization research suggests a continuum of wordclasses (p. 116). Molnár argues that historical grammars should incorporate theresults of grammaticalization research that trace the diachronic evolution ofdifferent word classes (e.g., the emergence of German modal particles throughgrammaticalization of certain adjectives and adverbs).

While most of the contributions draw on German data, Richard J. Watts'"Sprachgeschichte oder die Geschichte einer Sprache?" ["Language history or thehistory of a language?"] focuses on English. Within the framework of conceptualmetaphors (Lakoff and Johnson [1980] 2003) and conceptual integration(Fauconnier and Turner 2002), he analyzes how historiography and linguisticsbecame intertwined in the first half of the 19th century. He argues that theparallels drawn between the notion of a nation state on the one hand andlanguage on the other yielded a hegemonic "discourse archive" in the sense ofFoucault (p. 141) as well as a set of metaphors still in use (e.g. A COUNTRY ISA PLANTATION -- A LANGUAGE IS A PLANT, as in "A language flourishes"). Thisdefault perspective leads to the (narrowed) conception of language history asthe history of one national language.

Paul Rössler, in "Die Grenzen der Grenzen" ["The boundaries of boundaries"],revisits a classical problem of German historical linguistics, namely,periodization (see Roelcke 1998). He proposes a "fund of funds principle" todevelop a new model of periodization taking into account the insights ofprevious periodization models rather than re-interpreting the findings fromhistorical language data.

Hiroyuki Takada's paper deals with "'Umgangssprache' in der zweiten Hälfte des18. Jahrhunderts" ["'Colloquial language' in the second half of the 18thcentury"]. Drawing on Koch and Oesterreicher's (e.g., 1994) model of conceptual'writtenness' vs. 'orality' and 'language of closeness' vs. 'language ofdistance', he works out four different uses of the German term "Umgangssprache"["colloquial language"] in 18th century texts differing both in mediality(orality vs. writtenness) and in register (closeness vs. distance).

Stephan Elspaß addresses the question "Wohin steuern Korpora die HistorischeSprachwissenschaft?" ["Where are corpora leading historical linguistics?"] Hedetects a severe "corpus plight" ["Korpusmisere", p. 203] especially concerningthe Early New High German period and calls for explanatory adequacy in theinterpretation of corpus findings according to Ágel's (2001: 319f.) "principleof viability" stating that processes of language change cannot be described andexplained in idealized models. In this regard he questions Szczepaniak's (e.g.,2007, see also above) hypothesis that German has developed from a syllable to aword language, contesting some of her key examples as both exceptional and onlyoccurring in written language and presenting counterexamples indicating animprovement of the syllable structure rather than a highlighting of word boundaries.

In "Stil als Kategorie der soziopragmatischen Sprachgeschichte" ["Style as acategory in socio-pragmatic language history"], Noah Bubenhofer and JoachimScharloth first discuss the notion of "Stil" (roughly, "style"; the English andthe German terms cover a wide range of concepts but are not entirely congruent),which they define as a "recurrent, socio-culturally significant way ofperforming actions" ["rekurrente soziokulturell signifikante Form derHandlungsdurchführung", p. 231]. Employing an inductive, "corpus-driven" method,they then try to uncover stylistic differences in a corpus comprising audiotapeprotocols and flyers from the 1968 protest movement in Germany by means of acomplex n-gram analysis. Comparing two different milieus within this movement,they find significantly different recurring patterns.

Bubenhofer's second contribution, this one with Juliane Schröter, deals withchanging conceptualizations of the Alps and alpine climbing reflected in theyearbooks of the Swiss Alpine Club. Again using n-gram analysis, they find atwofold change in the perception of alpine climbing and mountain hiking: a) froman objective exploration of an unfamiliar environment to a subjective experienceof unaccustomed circumstances; b) from a "recreational science"["Freizeitwissenschaft", p. 278] of the educated middle class to a professionalextreme sport.

Andreas Gardt discusses the benefits and risks of viewing "Sprachgeschichte alsKulturgeschichte" ["Language history as cultural history"]. Contrary to Maitz(2006: 8), he does not see the diversification of historical linguistics as thediscipline accidentally striking out in the wrong direction ["unbeabsichtigtbetretener Irrweg"], but rather as an expression of social reality in which theco-existence of different perspectives and methods is not only accepted butregarded as suitable and fruitful. He makes a case for the cultural orientationof historical linguistics, which seems especially appropriate for the object ofstudy, language (p. 297).

The last paper, "Sprachgeschichte und Diachronie in der Finnougristik"["Language history and diachrony in Finno-Ugrian studies"] by MarianneBakró-Nagy, points out some results of and desiderata for Finno-Ugrian studies.The main areas of research include diachronic phonology and morphologicaldescription; shortcomings, according to Bakró-Nagy, include neglect ofgrammaticalization theory, historical syntax, and contact-linguistic research onloan words. The main endeavor at present, however, should be the exploration anddescription of endangered languages.

EVALUATION"Where is historical linguistics headed?" -- The question is illuminating andthought-provoking as it urges historical linguists not to limit their horizon totheir own theoretical and methodological frameworks but rather to question theirown views and reasoning in the light of competing approaches. As Gardt rightlystates, the diversity of approaches within historical linguistics can beregarded as an advantage rather than a drawback or even a sign of "immaturity"in the sense of Kuhn ([1962] 1970). However, this heterogeneity is necessarilyaccompanied by the danger of misunderstandings between different approaches orthe formation of distinct "camps". This volume reflects both the potential andsome of the possible misunderstandings that spring from this heterogeneity.

Two examples illustrate the latter. Cherubim takes up his criticism of Keller's([1990] 2003) 'invisible hand' theory (also Cherubim 1982), stating that Kellerfails to bridge the gap between innovation and change and rejecting the ideathat language change takes place "behind language users' backs" ["'hinter demRücken' der Sprachbenutzer", p. 33]. However, it is questionable whether thegeneral perceptibility of language change and an explanation in terms ofinvisible hand processes (i.e. as language change "behind users' backs") excludeeach other. On the one hand, it is certainly true that language change usuallycan be observed and reflected. Some instances manifest themselves in "linguisticcases of doubt" in the sense of Klein (2003, 2009) or in metalinguistic debates.On the other hand, some kinds of change, such as word-formation change, aremostly long-term processes that go unnoticed synchronically for most languageusers (cf. Munske 2002: 24). The same holds for the mostly unconscious processesinvolved in lexicalization and grammaticalization (as opposed to, e.g., thecoinage of a novel term or the borrowing of a word). Therefore, it is not at allmisguided to view language change -- in Keller's terms -- as a phenomenon of thethird kind, i.e. an unintended result of intentional human action (Keller [1990]2003: 93), especially if we consider that the process of innovation is sometimesitself unintentional (e.g. reanalysis, cf. Hopper and Traugott 2003: 50-53).Bearing this in mind, Cherubim's own intriguing model is not at all incompatiblewith Keller's invisible hand theory; rather, their approaches can be seen ascomplementing each other.

Elspaß' criticism of Szczepaniak's work shows a potentially gravermisunderstanding. First and foremost, he overlooks the fact that the typology ofsyllable vs. word languages, like most typologies, has to be taken with a grainof salt. At no point does Szczepaniak (2006, 2007) claim an exceptionless,unidirectional development of German from one end of the scale to the other;rather, she sketches an overall tendency. At the same time, Elspaßoperationalizes a rather idealized typology himself, namely, the typology of'orality' vs. 'writtenness', or 'language of distance' vs. 'language ofcloseness'. It is certainly true that the so-called "NeuhochdeutscheSchriftsprache" (written New High German) established from the 15th/16th centuryonwards (cf. Hartweg and Wegera 2005: 53) is not the language of everydayconversation; however, the connection between spoken and written language inPresent Day German and earlier stages of German is much more complex than Elspaßsuggests. The relationship between oral and written language is heavily debatedeven for Old High German (e.g., Hübner 2006: 42-44, for Middle High German, cf.Bumke [1986] 2005: 596-637). The fact that Latin serves as a language ofdistance, as Elspaß (p. 217) states, does not necessarily entail that themajority of Old High German texts exhibits a language of closeness ["dass dieuns überlieferten althochdeutschen Texte prinzipiell nähesprachlich sind", p.217]. Rather, written Old High German is heavily influenced by Latin and istherefore often said to lie between written and oral language (e.g., Ridder andWolf 2000: 431, 437f.). Elspaß' caveat on the comparability of Szczepaniak'sdata is therefore not entirely substantiated. He makes an important pointnevertheless, as the limits of comparability between different stages of Germanin corpus-based research are certainly worth considering, taking into accountparameters such as predominating text types, diverging places of origin (e.g.monastery vs. court vs. town), etc. Szczepaniak's study, however, has to beunderstood as a contribution to linguistic theory rather than a corpus-based oreven corpus-driven work. In fact, the word "Korpus" (or "Corpus" -- bothvariants exist in German) does not occur in Szczepaniak (2007). Thus, Elspaß'criticism of Szczepaniak's handling of corpus data seems out of place here.

However, the fact that such misunderstandings catch the eye can be a meritrather than a shortcoming. The volume shows both the variety of approaches andthe ongoing controversies between different approaches, providing a valuablebasis for the discussion of the path historical linguistics should take. Maitz'sintroduction integrates those different approaches in an interesting, albeitsketchy and sometimes over-simplified framework. For example, his assertion thatother approaches than the dominant neo-grammarian ones were generally ignored orsuppressed in the first "phase" of historical linguistics (p. 3) does not dojustice to historical reality. In fact, the neogrammarian framework was neverentirely undisputed (cf. Jankowsky 2001); Einhauser (2001: 1338) even states:"Seldom has a [scientific] group been so heavily disputed from the verybeginning" ["selten ist eine Gruppe von Anfang an so umstrittengewesen wie diese"]. It remains to be seen if Maitz will take up this point ingreater detail in his upcoming "Metasprachgeschichte".

Of special interest are those contributions that illustrate perspectives mostlyoverlooked for various reasons; for example, Bakró-Nagy's paper introduces therather small field of Finno-Ugric studies, and Kiss's contribution makes someideas of Hungarian research on language change accessible: of his 27 references,17 are in Hungarian. Moreover, Kiss addresses another open question not posedexplicitly in Maitz's introduction but which flares up, for example, inCherubim's (p. 38, fn. 23) strict exclusion of questions of language evolutionfrom the subject area of historical linguistics, namely, the question of theinterrelation of language-internal, cultural, and biological factors inprocesses of language change. In this respect, it is regrettable that Kiss'scontribution -- as he himself concedes -- remains rather sketchy and leaves somerelevant recent literature on the interplay of biological and cultural factorsin language and language change unconsidered (e.g., Christiansen and Chater2008, Beckner et al. 2009).

All in all, however, this volume is an inspiring overview of approaches incurrent historical linguistics. Although the scope of most contributions islimited to German diachronic linguistics, many insights should be applicable totheories of language change in general. Consequently, it is highly recommendablefor anyone interested in Historical Linguistics and the direction -- or rather,directions -- this discipline is taking or is about to take.

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Cherubim, Dieter. 1983. Trampelpfad zum Sprachwandel? Zu Rudi Kellers Beitrag inZGL 10.1982. In: Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik 11, 65-71.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERStefan Hartmann is a PhD student in historical linguistics at theUniversity of Mainz, Germany. He is currently conducting a corpus-basedstudy on the diachronic change of German nominalization patterns. Apartfrom historical and corpus linguistics, his research interests includeCognitive Linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics.

Page Updated: 23-Aug-2012