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Review of  The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Monica Vasileanu
Book Title: The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Claire Bowern Bethwyn Evans
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.2506

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume gathers 34 contributions from authors with various backgrounds, grouped in five sections, plus a consistent introduction, written by the editors Claire Bowern and Bethwyn Evans. The first section, called “Overviews”, contains three articles aimed at giving a wide perspective on the subject. The second section, “Methods and models”, made up of five articles, is concerned with presenting the main theoretical models that have dominated historical linguistics. The third section, “Language change”, puts together 17 contributions that treat language change within specific linguistic disciplines: phonology, morphology, syntax, etymology, semantics, sociolinguistics, and language acquisition. The fourth section, “Interfaces”, describes the connections between historical linguistics and other non-linguistic disciplines. The last section, “Regional summaries”, contains five articles dedicated to five linguistic families: Indo-European, Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Pama-Nyungan and the area of the Northwest Pacific.

The editors’ introduction, “Foundations of the new historical linguistics” (pp. 1-42), is a survey of the state of the art in historical linguistics. The two editors briefly summarize the evolution of this domain, with a special emphasis on its connections with other linguistic disciplines and with other sciences. The evolution of historical linguistics is seen as a series of answers given to important questions regarding language change. The major debates in historical linguistics are presented. A substantial bibliography, most of it recent, sustains the idea of a “renaissance” undergone by historical linguistics.

The first chapter, “Lineage and the constructive imagination: the birth of historical linguistics” (pp. 45-63) written by Roger Lass, presents how historical linguistics came into being. The author departs from Plato’s “Cratylos” and continues with a brief summary of the discipline’s pre-history. Two major themes are investigated: genealogy and the possibility of reconstruction. Lass shows how the story of Babel triggered the idea of a linguistic genealogy, with the dominating image of an arboriform structure. Lass examines Grimm’s Law (plus its ulterior corrections) and the Neogrammarians’ manifesto in order to show how reconstruction achieved important results in the 19th century.

In the 2nd chapter, “New perspectives in historical linguistics” (pp. 64-102), Paul Kiparsky summarizes the more recent development of historical linguistics: new relationships have been proposed, old relationships have been reassessed, unstudied languages have been documented, the comparative method has been refined. The analysis of various phenomena such as language contact, sound change, analogy, grammaticalization, syntactic and semantic change led to the formulation of theoretical conclusions. Thus, historical linguistics came to be integrated within theoretical linguistics, for instance in models such as Optimality Theory and Constructionalization.

In the 3rd paper “Compositionality and change” (pp. 103-123), Nigel Vincent discusses the relation between the principle of compositionality, formulated by Fregge, and language change. Language change can be explained through a re-analysis of a complex expression: the speaker picks as more relevant an aspect of a complex construction that was formerly seen as less relevant, as happened with the ‘aoristic drift’ (p. 106). Nigel Vincent discusses several examples of complex verbal phrases made up of a finite and a non-finite form and concludes that it is not enough to show how one form gets grammaticalized, for language change lies in the complex relations between the two forms, relations that can be understood through the analysability principle.

The second section, “Methods and Models”, begins with Michael Weiss’s paper, “The Comparative Method” (pp. 127-145). The author presents the history of the comparative method, its main principles and achievements, but also its limitations. The comparative method, although old, cannot be bypassed in studies on language genealogy. This chapter contains many practical examples to show how the comparative method works. A more theoretical approach to the same theory is to be found in the next chapter, “The Comparative Method: theoretical issues” (pp. 146-160), signed by Mark Hale. The chapter revolves around the notion of a proto-language, with questions such as: is a proto-language a real language? Does a proto-language have dialects? Does sound change work with allophones or phonemes? Is syntactic reconstruction possible? To these questions only partial answers can be provided, and Mark Hale shows how these answers converge with those provided by modern theoretical linguistics.

In the next chapter, “Trees, waves and linkages: models of language diversification” (pp. 161-189), Alexandre François investigates the process of language diversification. After listing the limitations of the Tree Model, the non-cladistic approach is presented: data from dialectology and sociolinguistics show that language change lies in the diffusion of a new speech habit across idiolects. Such a view is encapsulated in the Wave model, first proposed in the late 19th century as an alternative to the Tree Model. More recently, both models have been integrated in the wider concept of Linkage. The last section of the chapter illustrates Historical Glottometry, a model arising from the combination of the Comparative Model and the Wave Model; this model is applied to the northern Vanuatu linkage.

Michael Dunn’s paper “Language phylogenies” (pp. 190-211) relies on the concept of ‘phylogeny’, imported from biology to other domains: phylogeny is the scientific investigation of the descent of organisms, but is applied also to social sciences, arts and linguistics. In linguistics, most phylogenetic analyses seek to infer language history from the behaviour of lexical cognate sets, represented in standardized lists of meaning (p. 191). The article illustrates several quantitative phylogenetic methods of analysis, such as lexicostatistics, ‘the Levenshtein distance’ measure, and likelihood methods. All these are used to measure the distance between two languages. But these quantitative analyses have to be interpreted and Dunn presents a recent approach, the Bayesian model, which can assess the probability of genetic hypotheses. Quantitative phylogenetic analyses complete the Comparative Method and much work is still needed to complete existing databases and develop other programs.

Søren Wichmann, in his paper “Diachronic stability and typology” (pp. 212-224), turns his attention towards a more abstract domain: typology seen from a diachronic perspective. The findings of this domain are not individual facts, but formulations of tendencies. Wichmann reviews the literature on the topic and the models that have been proposed, and then opts for the model developed by himself and Eric Holman in 2009, by which the stability of several features (e.g. gender, politeness distinction, distance contrast in demonstratives) was calculated and several tendencies were observed (e.g. basic morphosyntactic features are more stable than pragmatically oriented features).

The third section, entitled “Language change”, opens with the article “Sound change” (pp. 227-248), signed by Andrew Garrett, which tackles phonetic change. The topics under debate are the definition of sound change, its preconditions, its embedding (i.e. the phonological, morphological and lexical contexts in which sound change occurs), and the actuation of sound change. Although much research has contributed to a better understanding of sound change, the question of actuation – why does sound change occur in a language at a certain time – has not received an answer yet.

The debate continues in the next chapter, “Phonological changes” (pp. 249-263), by Silke Hamann. The main issues of the paper are: detecting phonological change, distinguishing it from a mere phonetic change, the conditions of a phonological change, its formalization and the modern techniques of detecting and describing such a change. Phonological change occurs at the level of mental representations, therefore it can be detected indirectly, with the emergence or the disappearance of a phonemic contrast or with rephonologization (i.e. a change in the phonological dimension of a contrast). Formalization of phonologic change seeks to integrate this type of change into theoretical linguistics and more specifically into the Generative framework. Experimental methods such as acoustic measurements and perceptual experiments are useful tools in detecting phonological mergers and splits, while computer simulations are useful in testing the acquisition of phonologic systems.

Stephen R. Anderson’s contribution, “Morphological change” (pp. 264-285), takes into account both derivational and inflectional morphology, covering a wide array of changes. Some sources of morphological change can be found in phonological changes and in syntax. But in other cases, the sources of change lie in morphology itself, as in the case of analogy and its many subtypes. Grammaticalization is discussed and refuted as an overall pattern of change, since, according to the author, each particular type of change assigned to grammaticalization can be studied in its own right (p. 281-282).

In the next chapter, “Morphological reconstruction” (pp. 286-307), Harold Koch explores the process of undoing changes and tracing earlier morphologic structures, in a way similar to the Comparative Method; he illustrates the problems discussed with examples from the Pama-Nyungan family. Morphological features can be reconstructed by analysing reconstructed words, and by comparing attested words (usually the attested words contain traces of a more complex morphology). Some morphological features have originated from syntax or from phonological change. Analogy has triggered changes inside a paradigm and across paradigms. In the section dedicated to conclusions, Koch formulates some predictions about morphological change in several types of languages.

Zygmunt Frajzyngier’s contribution, “Functional syntax and language change” (pp. 308-325), contains a longer introduction, since the present model of functional syntax is recent and original and is applied in historical linguistics for the first time. Syntax is understood as a set of coding means and their interaction. The coding means encode a semantic or pragmatic function. Their realisations include lexical categories, free grammatical morphemes, linear order, inflectional morphology, serial verb constructions, prosodic and phonological features. Syntactic change occurs either in the coding means or in the functions encoded by them. Other causes of syntactic change are functional reanalysis (i.e. a coding means is associated with a new function), a change in the frequency of use, the action of indirect coding means, and language-external factors such as political and social factors and language contact. In the end, Frajzyngier illustrates the interaction between functional historical linguistics and other linguistic disciplines and approaches, and raises some questions that need further research.

A complementary approach is presented in the next chapter, “Generative syntax and language change” (pp. 326-342), focusing on formal syntax. Elly van Gelderen presents first the tension between generative grammar and historical linguistics, and then some considerations about Universal Grammar. The evolution of generative grammar is summarized with respect to its growing interest for historical linguistics. In the end, the author presents the advantages and the pitfalls of formal historical syntax.

In the next chapter, “Syntax and syntactic reconstruction” (pp. 343-373), Jóhanna Barðdal presents an overview of past and current research aiming at syntactic reconstruction: although more difficult than phonological, morphological or lexical reconstruction, it can be performed, especially in the framework of Construction Grammar: changes in case marking, case functions and in argument structure have been documented. Syntactic reconstruction is illustrated with two case-studies: the verb ‘lust’ in Proto-Germanic and the emergence of new case-frames in Indo-European languages.

The next chapter, “Lexical semantic change and semantic reconstruction” (pp. 374-392), is dedicated to a classic field of historical linguistics: lexical semantics. Matthias Urban summarizes the traditional cases of semantic change. Modern approaches emphasize the role of polysemy and of conversational implicatures. Cognitive linguistics relies on prototype theory to explain semantic change. Various generalizations about semantic change have been formulated (e.g. from concrete to abstract), but, scepticism persists over the finding of some ‘laws’ of semantic change, or at least some general principles. However, corpus-based analyses and semantic reconstruction performed in a cognitive framework have led to interesting conclusions.

In the following chapter, “Formal semantics/pragmatics and language change” (pp. 393-409), Ashwini Deo tackles the interface between semantics, pragmatics and grammar, illustrating some notions invoked in studies on grammaticalization, such as conventionalization of pragmatic inferences, generalization of semantic meaning and inflationary weakening. A recent approach, game-theoretic pragmatics, is presented as a formal tool that can be used in modelling grammaticalization.

Alexandra D’Arcy focuses in her contribution (“Discourse”, pp. 410-422) on the problem of embedding. The starting point of her article is variationist theory: linguistic change begins with language variation and this variation is to be found in discourse, more precisely in the vernacular. The variationist approach can indicate the pathways to grammaticalization, whilst other approaches only see the starting point and the end point. Lexicalization (i.e. the institutionalized adoption of forms into the lexicon) can also be accounted for in this approach, and the author illustrates her claims analysing the evolution of the ‘be like’ marker of direct speech.

The starting point of historical linguistics is the subject of Robert Mailhammer’s contribution, “Etymology” (pp. 423-441). Etymology is a quest for the origin of a linguistic item, be it lexical, phonological, syntactical or even phrasal; it is a useful tool in all fields of historical linguistics, since it leads to formulating sound laws and asserting genetic relations. Mailhammer shows how etymological research works and how a good etymology should be,warning against the Internal Development Bias, i.e. preferring an internal etymology to a contact-induced one.

Susan D. Fischer discusses, in her contribution “Sign languages in their historical context” (pp. 442-465), the changes undergone by different sign languages – American, Chinese, Taiwanese, German, etc. These sign languages can display instances of phonological, morphological and syntactic change, but most obvious is the case of borrowing. Sign languages are very young, just like creoles, but they are changing quickly and their study can thus be fruitful for historical linguistics.

The next chapter is dedicated to a topos of historical linguistics: “Language acquisition and language change” (pp. 466-483). James N. Stanford discusses the one-century-old theory that language change lies in the process of first language acquisition and more recent approaches which emphasize the role of adolescents and adults in language change, suggesting that peer influence is usually stronger than parent influence. Finally, the author discusses some special cases of language acquisition in special communities in which a strict exogamy leads to great differences between matrilect and patrilect.

Lev Michael’s contribution, “Social dimensions of language change” (pp. 484-502), is an account of the variationist approach to language change. Language change arises from the propagation of linguistic variants across repertories. This process of variant selection takes into account mostly social factors: class, gender, social networks, ideology, and other cultural facts in language change.

Joan Bybee and Clay Beckner, in “Language use, cognitive processes and linguistic change” (p. 503-518), discuss the cognitive processes that explain language change: categorization, the chunking process (leading to phonetic reduction, semantic bleaching, grammaticalization, loss of compositionality and analysability), priming, inferencing. All these processes can be subjected to analogy. The analysis shows how language change occurs in adults’ minds, and thus complements the child-based theories of language change.

Christopher Lucas, in his chapter “Contact-induced language change” (pp. 519-536), focuses on linguistic change determined by language contact, a subject that has received much attention in descriptive works but has not been integrated into theoretical models of language change. The author identifies bilingualism as the cause of contact-induced change. The dominance (understood in cognitive terms) of one language over another, either the source or the recipient language, determines four types of change that can occur at various levels in language: restructuring (no straightforward transfer, usually refers to syntactic restructuring), imposition (when the source language agents become dominant), borrowing (with the recipient language agents dominant), and convergence (for native bilinguals).

Language change implies that an old way of talking becomes obsolete and dies. This topic is explored by Jane Simpson in the paper “Language attrition and language change” (pp. 537-554). Language attrition can be defined in more common terms as forgetting or loss of a language or of some item of it, identifiable at any level in language (phonology, morpho-syntax, lexicon) and applicable to native languages and learned ones. Social, individual and linguistic factors determine this loss, and linguistic contact is the first trigger.

The fourth section is opened by Simon J. Greenhill’s contribution, “Demographic correlates of language diversity” (pp. 557-578), aimed at describing the connection between demographic factors and linguistic diversity. Statistical methods, simulations and phylogenetic methods are used for measuring the tempo of linguistic change and to make predictions about its causes. Language diversity has been associated with the age of a language, the size of the speaking population, its technological progress, and geographical and ecological factors such as resource availability, the facilities/barriers to human contact, the area covered by the speakers, the continental axis, and geographical latitude. Social factors influence linguistic diversity: the emblematic function of a language (i.e. language is an emblem of a social group), the difference between an esoteric language and an exoteric one, and political complexity. Each factor has been analysed, but further large-scale studies on the tempo of change are necessary, and also studies that would integrate all these factors in one theoretical approach are needed.

The next chapter, “Historical linguistics and social-cultural reconstruction” (pp. 579-597), signed by Patience Epps, explores the methods of reconstructing social and cultural aspects of a community by means of historical linguistics. The lexicon is the most salient tool: a reconstructed vocabulary shows how speakers of a protolanguage lived and can give clues about the homeland of that protolanguage; but reconstructing meaning is many times problematic. Loanwords and aspects of grammar and discourse indicate population contact. Semantic change blurs reconstruction, but might indicate some cultural practices.

Paul Heggarty’s contribution, “Prehistory through language and archaeology” (pp. 598-626), seeks to identify the links between historical linguistics and archaeology. Putting together data from both domains would bring new information about the chronology and the geography of language prehistory, but also about the causes of linguistic diversity. Archaeology corrects, in many situations, the inferences drawn from historical linguistics.

Brigitte Pakendorf brings up a surprising topic in her paper “Historical linguistics and molecular anthropology” (pp. 627-641). Two models combine genetic and linguistic data: the ‘coevolution’ approach, which states that linguistic distance is correlated with genetic distance, and the ‘contact’ approach, which considers that population contact can be analysed with tools pertaining to genetics. A case study from Fwe (a Bantu language) supports the latter claim. In the end, the author explains in an accessible language the main concepts and methods used by molecular anthropology.

The fifth section opens with an article on the most studied, but still problematic linguistic family, Indo-European: Benjamin W. Forston IV’s “Indo-European: methods and problems” (pp. 645-656). The author summarizes the current theories on the subgroups of the family and their branching off. The main outcomes of phonologic and morphologic reconstruction are presented, along with the still existing problems.

Ritsuko Kikusawa, in her contribution, “The Austronesian language family” (pp. 657-674), presents the problems of subgrouping and reconstructing the ancestor (spoken about 5000 years ago in Taiwan) of some 1200 late-attested languages in the Austronesian family. The tree model is not sufficient to represent this family. Contact-induced changes have resulted in some specific phenomena, such as ‘indirect inheritance’ (i.e. borrowing from a closely related language) and ‘metatypy’ (i.e. reorganization of an emblematic language of a community on the model of an unrelated language which functions as an intercommunity language). Morphosyntactic reconstruction has focused mostly on argument structure and case-marking.

More problems arise when discussing the Austroasiatic family (Paul Sidwell, “The Austroasiatic language phylum: a typology of phonological restructuring”, pp. 675-703), which groups about 150 languages with a discontinuous geographical distribution and heavy influences from non-related languages. The chapter focuses on phonological change, relying on data sets which indicate a preference towards monosyllabic words. Augmentation and reduction, syllable structure and tonogenesis are discussed along with other phenomena related to sound change.

Luisa Miceli tests the Pama-Nyungan hypothesis (“Pama Nyungan”, pp. 704-725), which proposes a genealogical relation between most of the Australian languages – approximately 160. The author presents the arguments and the problems raised by such a theory, based mainly on lexical similarity and shared innovation. Counterarguments propose an explanation of shared vocabulary through linguistic contact, especially since there is a great degree of phonological similarity. Thus, the relation between the 160 languages remains an open debate.

Sarah G. Thomason turns her attention to a linguistic area in North America, “The Pacific Northwest linguistic area: historical perspectives” (pp. 726-736), an area that contains three language families. The genealogic relation between them has not been clearly established. Sarah Thomason presents the shared features and the hypotheses that might explain them. Area-wide features seem to be older than limited-range common features, but a common ancestor cannot be postulated with a high degree of certainty.


The present volume is aimed at reflecting the state of the art and future directions of historical linguistics (p. XVIII). The two goals are achieved in this impressive volume. Each chapter undertakes a certain theme and discusses it departing from the first insights on that topic until present-day debates, offering indications for further reading and a view of the most recent works in the domain. Most of the time, the final section of the chapter suggests the further development of the discipline.

The structure of the volume illustrates the current state of historical linguistics: in spite of being the oldest discipline, etymology seems to have become an obsolete field (with only one paper dedicated to it), whereas grammar seems to be now the main domain investigated from a diachronic perspective. Grammaticalization is one of the main topics discussed in the book, with serious pros and cons on considering it a particular force driving language change.

All the papers use an appropriate language for a handbook: terminology is explained. Thus, the volume is accessible not only to specialists, but also to undergraduates or merely curious readers.

In conclusion, this volume represents a great introduction for anyone interested in historical linguistics, as well as in other connected disciplines such as history, archaeology, and molecular anthropology. Also, it represents a good starting point for research and an impressive testimony to the progress achieved in historical linguistics.
Monica Vasileanu is a scientific researcher at the 'Iorgu Iordan - Al. Rosetti' Institute of Linguistics in Bucharest, Romania, where she is currently working in projects such as 'Dicţionarul limbii române' (the comprehensive dictionary of Romanian) and 'Dicţionarul etimologic al limbii române' (the etymological dictionary of Romanian). She defendend her PhD dissertation in 2012. Her main interests are in the fields of historical linguistics and of critical text editing. She also teaches Romanian language to non-native speakers at the University of Bucharest.

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ISBN-13: 9780415527897
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