LINGUIST List 30.1467

Wed Apr 03 2019

Review: Historical Linguistics: Lehmann, Malkiel (2017)

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Date: 10-Jan-2019
From: Matteo Tarsi <>
Subject: Directions for Historical Linguistics
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Winfred P. Lehmann
AUTHOR: Yakov Malkiel
TITLE: Directions for Historical Linguistics
SUBTITLE: Reprint of the 1968 Original
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Matteo Tarsi, University of Iceland


“Directions for Historical Linguistics” is a collection of five papers delivered at a 1966 symposium at the University of Texas, Austin. The authors of the contributions are as follows: Winfred P. Lehmann, Yakov Malkiel, Jerzy Kuryłowicz, Émile Benveniste, and Uriel Weinreich, William Labov and Marvin Herzog. The book, originally edited by Winfred P. Lehmann and Yakov Malkiel, was published in 1968 but had long been out of commerce until Hans C. Boas (University of Texas at Austin) and Marc Pierce (University of Michigan) made it available in print again for the benefit of a new generation of readers (the 1968 volume had already been made available on-line on the website of University of Texas).

The 2017 reprint is introduced by a short, yet informative, preface by the editors where the historical background for the aforementioned conference, and subsequent proceedings, is outlined, together with the motivation for choosing to reissue this particular book, namely the popularity it had enjoyed in the years as a freely accessible version on website of the Language Resources Center of the University of Texas at Austin (LRC). The historical background which prompted the organization of the 1966 symposium was that historical linguistics was rapidly giving way to the young generative paradigm. This is further remarked in the preface by the original editors who say that the inadequate attention given to historical linguistics by the middle of the sixties created the need to “restore historical studies to their position of leadership among the primary linguistic disciplines.” Thus, there was a need to organize a symposium whose main aim was to trace clear guidelines for further research in the field of historical linguistics. The red thread which links the five contributions is that of providing a different perspective on key-issues and methodological problems of historical linguistics.

Winfred P. Lehmann’s contribution analyzes Saussure’s structuralist approach to linguistics, which advocates a clear dichotomy between diachronic and synchronic linguistics. Starting from a critical discussion of this dichotomy, Lehmann explores its implications and the influence it has had on the study of linguistics. In a fair critical discussion, Lehmann recognizes the merits of Saussure’s dichotomic approach but subsequently proposes a new approach which would overcome the theoretical shortcomings present in Saussure’s structuralism, above all the massive importance given to phonological change over morphological and semantic change, together with the focus on states rather than operations in the study of linguistic phenomena. What Lehmann speaks in favor of is thus a clear paradigm shift, and that is in fact what had happened at that time, and whose reflexes we still enjoy today, a sort of “Humanism of linguistics”, i.e. “an approach ... which deals with language from the point of view of the participant ...” (p. 13). Lehmann inscribes this paradigm shift in the approach taken in the research activities of his colleagues and fellow conference delegates, Kuryłowicz, Weinreich, Labov, Herzog, Malkiel, Benveniste. “The departures which have been introduced,” Lehmann concludes, “may lead to elimination of shortcomings in his [i.e. Saussure’s] linguistic theory, in somewhat the same way as were those of Bopp and his successors by Saussure, without leading to positions which disregard the achievements of past theory.” Lehmann’s epistemological position is thus a positive one, i.e. it sees the development of science as a continuum albeit there must be some sort of critical rupture with the past for a paradigm shift to take place, for example a change in research focus and thus in set of valid research questions.

The contribution by Yakov Malkiel gives an insight into inflectional paradigms as causes of language change. Malkiel starts his article by giving a critical account of the state of research in historical linguistics and laments the lack of large-scale coordination in the efforts of “brilliant, dauntless individuals”. In aiming at inscribing his critique into a programmatic, constructive contribution, Malkiel sets out seventeen “very pressing problems” for historical linguistics (pp. 25-33) and subsequently focuses on one, i.e. “the paradigm as a stimulus for language change.” Malkiel’s analysis departs from the consideration that a not common consonant cluster could appear in a specific group of verb forms and be replaced by analogical forces in comparison with the paradigm of other, more pervasive, verbs. This new replacement could, with time, affect secondary analogical changes in other parts of speech. Malkiel exemplifies his theoretical consideration by examining the case of -rǵ-, -lǵ- and -nǵ- consonant clusters in Romance. In particular he takes into consideration the influence that verbs which historically show the outcome of such clusters have undergone from the paradigm of other verbs by force of analogy and have thus caused the phonological structure of the former verbs to diverge from the historically expected (and in some cases attested) forms.

Jerzy Kuryłowicz’s paper mediates between phonemics and morphology and proposes an entity midway between phoneme and morpheme, i.e. the morpho(pho)neme. Whereas the morpheme is by definition a carrier of meaning, morpho-phonemes are defined as morphs which do not carry morphological function, i.e. they are “semantically void” (p. 80). The point of departure of Kuryłowicz’s paper is offered by the consideration that there may be “limitrophous border problems engaging both domains, phonemics and morphology.” This is further exemplified by considering few problematic cases in different branches of Indo-European, e.g. the function carried out by apophony in Indo-European or that of metaphony in German plural. The conclusion reached by Kuryłowicz is that whereas there of course are morphemes proper, in the cases cited above the thematic vowels on the one hand and the plural ending -er on the other, there is another entity whose function is redundant, and that is the morpho-phoneme. The redundant nature of this entity is evident when the distribution of its single manifestations is considered, i.e. neither ablaut in IE nor metaphony in the formation of plural in German is a clear distinctive mark of the morphological function it appears in combination with. In other words, plural in German is never carried out by metaphony alone (and in fact the appearance of metaphony is conditioned by the quality of the root vowel and the phonemic structure of its morphological surroundings, p. 70), nor is aorist in IE exclusively marked by apophony, and in fact it is always paired with affixation. This state of affairs need of course not be static as morpho-phonemes can, with time, become morphemes and vice versa.

Benveniste’s contribution tackles the issue of mutation of linguistic categories. These can be of two kinds: innovating and conservative. Mutations of the former kind consist in the loss or addition of formal categories, i.e. such mutations modify the entire stock of available categories by adding or removing one or more categories (e.g. disappearance of neuter, elimination of the dual etc.). Mutations of the latter kind, which are labelled as conservative, are instead those that modify a given category. Such mutations are exemplified by the substitution of a morphemic structure by a periphrastic structure with the same function. Benveniste focuses on this latter case by analyzing two cases: 1) the emergence of the periphrastic perfect in Romance, the stages by which it came into existence and the conditions it originally was subject to; and 2) the periphrastic future in Romance and the related case of Greek. In the final section of the article Benveniste provides the reader with further examples also from outside Indo-European.

The last article in the volume is also the longest and most articulated. The paper is valuable among other things because it is the last scholarly contribution by Uriel Weinreich, who prematurely died at the age of forty and to whom the volume is dedicated. The article by Weinreich, Labov and Herzog tackles a fundamental problem for the study of language change, namely the empirical foundations underlying a theory of such a branch of knowledge. The article encompasses three sections plus an introductory chapter: In section 1 (“The isolation of the idiolect”) the discussion is framed in its historical dimension. The authors discuss at length Hermann Paul’s approach, on which Lehmann also expressed himself in the first paper of these proceedings. Saussure’s fundamental contribution to the field of the area of linguistics under scrutiny is thus discussed and thence that of Bloomfield, followed by the generative approach. This is further criticized and its foundations debunked in Section 2.41 of the article. In particular, the fondative assumption of the generative model that language is homogeneous is deemed as unrealistic and not in accordance with fact. Section 2 (“Problems of changing structure”) in fact devolves into the discussion of admissible problems, i.e. the research questions that a theory of linguistic change should address. Section 3 (“Language as a differentiated system”) analyzes the question of how a language can continue to function efficiently as it undergoes change. Here, different sets of problems are taken into consideration. In particular, the importance of the embedding of language into a social structure is assessed. In conclusion, seven programmatic general principles of language change are given. Here, the importance of considering language as heterogeneous is stressed and the view of language as a social phenomenon advocated.


It is impossible for me to criticize the views of the scholars who have contributed to “Directions for Historical Linguistics”. These scholars have laid the cornerstone for the discussion and subsequent development of historical linguistics by reassessing previous fondative contributions and providing material for a general paradigm for historical linguistics. The epistemological approach detectable throughout the five contributions is thus crystal-clear, and the final contribution by Weinreich, Labov and Herzog is a manifesto of this paradigm. The generative approach is coherently criticized and a partly new approach to historical linguistic problems proposed, namely that it take into consideration the social dimension of language as opposed, among others, to the God’s-eye view of generative linguistics.

As for other reprints, the question that a review should seek to answer is thus whether such a publication was worth the effort. We can exclude in this case that the reprint has been motivated by mere economical matters, as is often the case with reprints of (especially etymological) dictionaries, where so-called new editions rarely constitute any real advancement. The case in point here is instead that of proposing again a collection of scholarly pieces in the same format as the original publication. In a world where it is possible to access scholarly contributions from all over the world in one click, it is worth asking whether a fifty-years old volume, as prestigious as its authors may be, is still useful and, if yes, to what kind of readership the volume most appeals to. The volume under discussion here strikes me as interesting for two kinds of readers. On the one hand there are general and historical linguists, especially in the field of Indo-European, who might enjoy such a publication which has laid the foundations for a better understanding of contemporary historical linguistics and is thus a point of departure from the “classical” approach to historical linguistic matters, as is that of e.g. Hermann Paul. On the other hand there are historians of linguistics and even philosophers of science: the volume is in fact a milestone in tracing the history and dynamics of a paradigm shift inside historical linguistics, a paradigm which, albeit not being in total contrast with its predecessors, puts forth a largely enriched set of research questions which constitute to a large extent the cornerstone of contemporary research. For example, a field such as that of historical sociolinguistics could hardly have come into being without the advancement in theoretical thinking which shines through Weinreich’s contribution. Of course there is no direct line between the volume under discussion here and the historical linguistics we do research in today, as the contemporary paradigm has come into being also thanks to other major advancements. At any rate, the importance of the theoretical foundations which underlie the essays in the volume is crucial, if one is to understand the history of linguistic thought. In this respect it is worth stressing that this must have been clear to the authors, and especially Lehmann and Weinreich, for their contributions are clearly set up with a historical setting in mind. In a nutshell, the evaluation of a reprint of a volume such as “Directions for Historical Linguistics” cannot be anything but positive.


I am a Ph.D​ student in Icelandic Linguistics at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík. My research focuses on the interplay between loanwords and native words in Old and Middle Icelandic. Among my other research interests are: history of linguistics (especially in the 18th century), etymology, loanword studies, and language planning and policy studies.

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