LINGUIST List 26.3058

Fri Jun 26 2015

Review: Historical Ling; Phonology: Liesner (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 19-Mar-2015
From: Jean-François Mondon <>
Subject: Latin Historical Phonology Workbook
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Malte Liesner
TITLE: Latin Historical Phonology Workbook
PUBLISHER: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Jean-François R. Mondon, Minot State University

Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Ashley Parker
Book's Publisher: Reichert Verlag (Wiesbaden, Germany)
Book’s North American Distributor: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books


“Latin Historical Phonology Workbook” is an English version of Malte Liesner’s “Arbeitsbuch zur lateinischen historischen Phonologie,” translated by the author himself. Through 38 chapters, Liesner guides the reader through the phonological development of Latin, starting predominantly from pre-Latin but also occasionally from Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The book touches on every major sound change as well as multiple minor ones. All but a handful of chapters follow the same format: the left hand page discusses a group of related sound changes and the right hand page consists of two or three different types of exercises for the reader to test the information just presented. The exercises range from applying the various rules under discussion in order to convert a reconstructed form into an attested Latin form, to the reverse, undoing phonetic developments to ascertain an earlier form.

These 38 chapters themselves are subsumed into three larger parts. The first, “Fundamental Concepts of Latin Historical Phonology,” comprises nine chapters which assume little to no prior knowledge of language change or linguistics, more generally. Topics covered in this section include articulatory phonetics, phonological features, syllabification, accentuation, sociolinguistics, and language change.

The next 12 chapters deal with the “Development of Latin Vowels.” Each of these chapters consists of changes which are related by their having similar effects, such as vowel weakening and monophongizations, or by their affecting the same sound(s), such as changes to the front vowels ‘e’ and ‘i’ or to the back rounded vowel ‘o.’

The final part, “Developments of Latin Consonants”, comprises the remaining 17 sections. Its format is identical to the section on the vowels, grouping sound changes either by similar effects, such as assimilation, or by similar inputs such as the fricative ‘s.’ Since sound change is anything but consistently clean, Liesner prudently devotes one chapter in this section to analogical change, discussing paradigmatic levelling and proportional analogy. Five of the final six chapters of the part trace the development of the PIE consonant inventory into Latin, while the final chapter discusses some of the major phonological differences between Latin and the closely-related Sabellic languages.

The book concludes with an answer key and an ample 20+ page appendix on all the changes covered in the book along with a chronology of the sound changes and developments of the consonantal sound inventory from PIE to Latin in a tabular form.


The nine chapters of the first section do a good job at arming the reader with the linguistic tools which will be needed to progress into the realm of Latin sound changes. Particularly important is Liesner’s stressing the priority of pronunciation over orthography. Early on, he shows the reader how to convert Latin words from their standard written form into a pseudo-phonetic notation which reflects pronunciation more closely. Some examples consist of writing a macron over all long vowels, converting orthographic ‘q’ to ‘kw,’ differentiating ‘normal l’ from ‘dark l’ and marking geminate ‘jj’ in words such as ‘cuius.’ Liesner’s section on placing Latin in a historical context is succinct and clear. His placing of Latin in a social context is also clear, though his use of terms not regular from the perspective of sociolinguistic works, e.g. diastratic and diaphasic used to describe registers divided by social groups and formality, respectively, struck me as odd.

In the two sections on the development of vowels and consonants, Liesner ably makes the breadth of changes covered palatable. On several occasions this is done by avoiding debates on various changes and simply adopting one view without comments, such as the existence and precise formulation of Lachmann’s Law. This is an obvious and wise decision in a pedagogical book of this nature, which is not concerned with advancing own theories by the author. For those readers interested in pursuing any topic further, Liesner’s short bibliography does include the most important handbooks where further references and views can be sought.

Two drawbacks plague the book, neither of which should discourage anyone from adopting it for a course, however. Aside from a short appendix on relative chronology, Liesner’s book does not explicitly highlight diachronic rule ordering. In most of the exercises, rules - both those which have already been covered and those which have yet to be covered - are interspersed where needed in order to produce the ultimate Latin forms. These rule orderings are not discussed but simply provided to complete the exercises. It could prove beneficial to highlight throughout the book the evolving Latin sound system and how various changes in the sound inventory may have set the stage for subsequent developments. Perhaps it would have been better to break the monotony of the few exercise types and have students determine relative chronologies for themselves.

The second drawback is the book being littered with typos. Many consist of German words which were occasionally left untranslated in converting the book into English, such as ‘und,’ ‘Horaz,’ ‘Englisch.’ Others consist of missing functional words which can easily be inserted by the reader. Very few consist of phraseology which is odd-sounding in English. Importantly, though, few to no typos appear in the exercises.

This book is very successful at packing so much information into so few pages. The exercises and ample examples help keep the reader afloat and not overwhelmed by the flood of information. Some drawbacks do plague the book, but not enough to dissuade it from being adopted in courses. It fills a void by uniquely making Latin phonological history comprehensible to the many students who lack the requisite knowledge of linguistics assumed in the standard Latin historical handbooks, and by making learning Latin phonology an active process. It could serve as one of the primary texts in an undergraduate or graduate course on the historical development of Latin, though it would need to be supplemented since understandably this book does not delve into morphological or syntactic developments. It could also fruitfully be drawn on in a general historical linguistic course though since the book deals with only one aspect of language change and only one language, I would recommend against making it mandatory for such a course. No prior knowledge of Latin is necessary for the book.


Assistant Professor or Foreign Languages at Minot State University, whose research deals with the writing of pedagogical material for various languages (Classical Armenian, Latin) and fieldwork on Breton.

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