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Review of  Problems of Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Eleonora Sausa
Book Title: Problems of Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Bohumil Vykypěl
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 27.762

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The volume ‘Problems of Historical Linguistics’ by Bohumil Vykypěl is a collection of fourteen brief author’s contributions, in German and in English, written between 2005 and 2013, concerning comparative-historical linguistics, with a special attention to the perspective of contact between languages. The collected papers cover a range of different areas, from the history and theory of the discipline to detailed diachronic problems in specific language families, such as Celtic, Germanic and Slavic. A particular emphasis is given to the Slavic branch of Indo-European languages and to its role in linguistic comparison and reconstruction. This book is intended for an audience of historical linguists, Indo-Europeanists, and scholars dealing with Slavic languages and linguistics, language-contact, and diachronic change.

The article “Zur Noetik der historischen und vergleichenden Sprachwissenschaft” is devoted to theoretical issues in comparative-historical linguistics illustrated through the study of the dual number category in Slavic and Baltic languages. In particular, the author directs his attention to the origin of the morphological dual number category in Old Czech, which then disappeared between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and its relationship to the same category in Baltic languages.

In “Zum Begriff der genetischen Sprachverwandtschaft” the author provides a reflection on the genetic relationship among languages, giving a contribution to theoretical and practical issues in diachronic linguistics. Vykypěl discusses the merits of the book ‘Language, Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics’ by Sarah G. Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1988) in this field. He illustrates through some examples from the book the complexity of the genetic classification of creole languages, such as Ma’a, a creole based on Cushitic lexicon and Bantu grammar, or Angloromani, based on Romani lexicon and English grammar.

In “Das Problem der sprachlichen Elementarverwandtschaft” the author at first presents a short biography of František Kopečný, a Czech linguist, focusing the attention on his important writings on Old Czech Grammar and on the issue of the Standard Czech language. He then discusses his concept of ‘elementary relationship’ between languages, which is a parameter to describe the degree of diversity among languages together with the genetic, typological and areal approaches.

Also the paper “Josef Miloslav Kořínek und sein Beitrag zur Erforschung der sprachlichen Symbolik” opens with the description of the life and work of another Czech linguist, Josef Miloslav Kořínek. The author underlines the importance of the work of this scholar in Slavic and Indo-European research and his contribution above all to the topics of interactionality, expressivity, and iconicity and to Indo-European studies.

In “Emanuel Kovar’s contribution to evolutionary typology of languages”, the author emphasizes the role of Emanuel Kovář, who was the first Czech teacher of general linguistics, in the evolutionary typology of languages. This linguist was interested in the insoluble and fascinating problem of the origin of language, devoting a book to this topic titled ‘The history of the question of the origin of human speech’ (1898).

Some articles are specifically devoted to language contact. First, the notion of language contact in the School of Prague is discussed in the paper “Prager Schule und Sprachkontakt”, in which the author underlines the closeness between the structuralist and functional School of Prague and the research on grammaticalization within the field of language contact.

In “Alltäglicher und feiertäglicher Sprachkontakt” the author argues for an influence of the Czech language on the Sorbian language, beside the well-known influence of German; he discusses some lexical examples and the nominal predicate with instrumental construction as pieces of evidence in favor of his hypothesis.

The paper “Slavonic articles in areal context: a contribution to explicative contrastive linguistics” is devoted to Slavonic articles within the European linguistic area. The author discusses the category of article from a structural and functional point of view, following Hjelmslev (1959) for the first and Heine and Kuteva (2006) for the latter. Then he provides a brief description of the status of the articles in the European area, focusing on transitional zones with languages which do not belong to languages with postpositional articles nor to languages with prepositional articles, nor to languages with no article. In particular, this is the status of substandard varieties of Central Europe, such as colloquial Czech, Slovak, and Slovenian, which find between languages with articles, such as Italian, German and Hungarian and languages without articles, such as standard Czech, Slovenian and Upper Sorbian.

The paper “Scheinprobleme in contact linguistics” deals with pseudo-problems in contact linguistics, taking into account the case of German and north Slavonic future tense. In particular, the author discusses the relationship between the German and Slavonic future constructions, one of which is considered by some authors to be the calque of the other, or vice versa. The author discusses the possible independent formation of the two constructions and their probable establishment and grammaticalization through contact. More in general, the author stresses one more time the interaction between internal independent development of constructions and external factors in diachronic change and grammaticalization.

In the paper “Emblematismen in der Morphologie” the author focuses on the notion of function in language through the exemplification of two examples in Celtic and Slavic languages, i.e. the status of dual number category in Breton and Czech languages and the development of the article in Celtic and Slavic languages.

The article “Old Church Slavonic etymology and Indo-European studies” is devoted to the role of Old Church Slavonic in Indo-European studies and more generally to historical-comparative linguistics. In particular, the author denounces a marginal attention in Indo-European studies to the importance of Old Czech, invoking a reassessment of its role within this research field and calling urgently for the creation of an Etymological Dictionary of the Old Czech language.

In “Indogermanen und Indogermanistik” the author provides some brief critical remarks on the book ‘Indogermanischen Sprachen’ by Ernst Kausen (2012).

In “Language influenced and influencing” the relationship between language and the world is briefly addressed: in particular, the author discusses the interaction between the mother-tongue of linguists and their theories of language, claiming not only that the organization of languages is influenced by the external reality, but also that languages influence our thought about and our understanding of language itself.

The book closes with a review of the book Genesis of Syntactic Complexity by Givón (2009), in which Vykypěl discusses some arguments against the explanatory exclusivity of history, evaluating the causal diachronic approach not an exhaustive explanatory perspective and invoking a more comprehensive theory of synchronic language diversity, with more attention for functions and tasks of languages.


As it is a collection of different papers, this book covers a range of topics, all focused around the theme of comparative-historical linguistics and language contact. In almost all works there is a special attention devoted to the role of Slavic languages in comparative linguistic studies. In particular, the need for a reassessment of the status of Old Czech, a neglected language in Indo-European research, emerges as one of the most urgent and prominent issues for the author.

The variety of the topics developed in different articles constituting this volume is certainly one of the merits of this book, which makes it interesting and useful for specialists in different linguistic fields. The importance of Slavic languages in Indo-European studies strongly emerges from this book: in this respect, the author accomplishes one of his goals.

A limit of this volume could be discerned in a poor explicit link among the papers and the lack of clear statement of intent, which could have been developed in the preface, used instead by the author, not to introduce and frame his articles, but to inform the reader about his opinions concerning the situation of present-day linguistics.

It is laudable that the author organizes each article taking into account the general and the particular perspective, keeping together specific case-studies with theoretical general discussions. Vykypěl, beside the illustration of the single linguistic phenomenon, explicitly expresses his points of view on different issues concerning the study of languages and their change during time, wisely using the examples to support his claims.

Sometimes, the description and framing of some interesting linguistic phenomena deserved more space and details, for example the treatment of Slavic articles, or the influence of Czech language on the Upper Sorbian language.

Overall, this volume contains a number of interesting papers on the topic of language change in many areas of historical linguistics and language contact and is a useful resource for those who are interested both in theoretical issues of comparative-historical linguistics and in the role of Slavic languages and Old Czech in Indo-European studies.


Givón, Talmy. 2009. The genesis of Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony, ontogeny, neuro-cognition, evolution. Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Kausen, Emanuel. 2012. Die indogermanischen Sprachen von der Vorgeschichte bis zur Gegenwart. Hamburg: Helmut Buske.

Kovář, Emanuel. 1898. O půdvodě lidské mluvy. Praha: Bursík a Kohout.

Heine, Bernd and Kuteva, Tania. 2006. Changing Languages of Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hjelmslev, Louis. 1959. Essais linguistique. Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog-og Kultirforlag.

Thomason, Sara and Kaufman, T. 1988. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics. Berkeley: University of Los Angeles Press.
Eleonora Sausa is finishing her PhD in Linguistics at University of Pavia, Italy. She works on Ancient Greek in a constructionist approach, and her thesis focuses on argument structure constructions in Homer. She is also interested in computational methods and digital resources for ancient languages, and in teaching Italian as second language.