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Review of  Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship

Reviewer: Matteo Tarsi
Book Title: Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship
Book Author: Hans Henrich Hock Brian D. Joseph
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.1969

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Hock and Joseph’s textbook Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship was published in a third, revised edition in 2019. The book comprises eighteen main chapters. An additional chapter is dedicated to notes and suggested readings. A list of references, together with a language and a general index are given at the end of the book. In the following, a brief description of each chapter is given.

Chapter 1 “Introduction” eases the reader into historical linguistics. In it, the authors give a brief, yet effective, presentation of language change and the mechanisms which are at its foundations. The concept of linguistic relationship is then explained in a very accessible way. The role of the speaker, and that of the idiosyncrasies of the speakers’ community, is discussed in a specially dedicated section. A guide to the principles of transcription and the terminology used throughout the book is the object of the last section. An appendix to Chapter 1 provides further treatment of phonetics, with definitions and examples.

Chapter 2 “The discovery of Indo-European” provides a more detailed introduction to language relationship together with a historical framing of the discovery of Indo-European as a language family. The basics of the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European are outlined in Section 2, which is then followed by a detailed description of the different branches of the language family (Section 3). A list of abbreviations of Indo-European language names is given at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 3 “Writing: Its history and its decipherment” offers an account of the development of writing and of various typologies of writing systems around the world together with a history of some of the most famous decipherments such as that of cuneiform scripts. A specific section (4) is devoted to the principles at the basis of the decipherment of scripts. A last section is dedicated to other notable scripts such as the Chinese, the Korean, and the writing systems of India.

Chapter 4 “Sound change” describes sound change as one of the main tenets in the study of historical linguistics. The phenomenon is explained by means of an exposition of Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws. The mechanisms at work in Grimm’s Law are compared to other similar sound changes inside and outside Indo-European. Verner’s Law is contextualized and the difference of its outcomes contrasted with other members of the Indo-European language family, chiefly Latin and Sanskrit. The exposition then moves on to explaining the regularity hypothesis and to inscribing it in its historical context. Different typologies of sound changes are defined and described in Section 5 (assimilation, weakening, loss, epenthesis, chain shifts, etc.). The explanations for sound change given in earlier scholarship are surveyed in Section 6, culminating in Labov’s view of socially-conditioned linguistic change. In the final section of this chapter, the authors provide counter-evidence to attempts to undermine the principle of the (overwhelming) regularity of sound change, thus re-establishing its inescapable validity.

Chapter 5 “Analogy and change in word structure” deals with analogy and morphological change. The two main typologies of (mainly) systematic analogy, leveling, and four-part analogy, are described in Section 2. Non-systematic analogy is the focus of Section 3. A number of sporadic analogical processes are described there, e.g. blending, contamination, reinterpretation. The interface between analogy and phonology is further explored in Section 4. Here, examples are given on regular analogical changes. This section nicely counterbalances the previous ones on analogy, which, according to the neo-grammarian view, is inherently irregular (although leveling and four-part analogy were recognized as more systematic than other processes). Hypercorrection as a source of analogy is surveyed in Section 5. Section 6 is dedicated to morphological change and its relation to sound change and analogical changes. A memorable didactic example is given, namely that of the disappearance of cases in English. However, the authors go on explaining, morphological innovations are not only triggered by sound change, for other mechanisms, such as borrowing or syntax, can play a role. Easy-to-understand examples are provided in the discussion.

Chapter 6 “Syntactic change”
This chapter surveys changes which are mainly of a syntactic nature. However, the authors rightly point out at the beginning of the chapter, linguistic changes have multiple connections across different “parts” of the linguistic system. Section 2 gives a brief, punctual account of what is style and not wrong syntax. Section 3 provides an analysis of hopefully and a reassessment of the syntactic arguments against its usage in Present-Day English. Sections 4 revises the uses of personal pronouns, especially me and I, in light of syntactic changes. Section 5 gives an overview of word order shift from Old English to the present day.

Chapter 7 “Semantic change”
The chapter opens by providing an overview of the problems related to “the inherent fuzziness of meaning”, as the authors word it. In Section 2 and 3 they illustrate in plain words the major intricacies related to the study of meaning: polysemy, semantic overlap, metaphor, synonymy, and homonymy. From this, they move on to further analyzing the relationship holding between sound and meaning. They briefly, and yet precisely, touch upon false cognates. From having demonstrated in such a way that the relationship holding between sound and meaning is totally arbitrary, they procede on to showing that this is so even in the case of onomatopoeia. Section 5 reviews the factors which are generally responsible for semantic change: metaphor, taboo, avoidance of excessive homonymy or synonymy, reinterpretation, etc. Having described the causes of semantic change, the authors move on to describing its effects in Section 6.

Chapter 8 “Lexical borrowing”
The chapter is devoted to introducing the main tenets of word borrowing. The chapter first describes what is borrowed (2), then how the borrowed material is adapted to the recipient language (3). Section 4 describes the phenomenon whereby a foreign word is “hyperforeignized” in force of the fact that it is felt as foreign and, hence, it is made even more similar to those foreign elements of the lexicon with which it is associated. Section 5 deals with the motivations for borrowing and for not doing so (nationalism, linguistic purism, etc.). Icelandic, alongside Chinese, is used as an example of avoidance of borrowing. Albeit it is undeniable that Icelandic, in comparison to other languages, shows a lesser degree of loanwords, the outcome of linguistic nationalism have always been to some extent inconsistent also in that language (see e.g. the use of numerous Danish loans in 18th- and 19th-century Icelandic also in the writings of those who campaigned for a pure language). What is different is possibly the shared linguistic belief among Icelanders that a word made up of native word-stems is always, or nearly always, better than a loanword. Needless to say that this general principle is contradicted on a daily basis. Nowadays, the main source for borrowings is, as one might expect, English, whereas until the 40’s Danish was the main source for loans. As a result, today older generations may find themselves using loans where younger generations would use a “pure Icelandic” word, e.g. altan : svalir ‘balcony’, ske : gerast ‘to happen’. Conversely, younger generations are more prone to use English borrowings instead of older generations (e.g. beisiklí [Eng. basically] : í rauninni, í raun og veru, etc. ‘in reality, basically’). Section 6 illustrates the effects and the differents facets that lexical borrowing has on the word stock of a given language, here English.

Chapter 9 “Lexical change and etymology”
In this chapter’s introductory words, the authors collect the aspects described in the preceding chapters and provide a way of application of that knowledge, namely the study of word history. The chapter is in large part dedicated to coinage. A specific section is of special interest in that it is dedicated to the study of the origin of proper names and toponyms. A concluding section addresses special kinds of language use: argots, jargons, and slang. The section nicely fits in the bigger picture of this chapter, for these special kinds of linguistic usage heavily rest on a host of mechanisms, such as coinage and re-semanticization, which were described earlier in the book.

Chapter 10 “Language, dialect, and standard”
In this chapter, the authors start with problematizing the definitions of “language” and “dialect”. This is done first by providing the general view that languages are superordinate to dialects and vice versa, and subsequently by somewhat rationalizing this view in relation to how linguists approach the issue. The authors provide numerous examples from different English-speaking communities and briefly touch upon other cases. The following two sections in the chapter are dedicated to different environments and shapes dialects can assume (social dialects, professional jargons [cf. also Ch. 9, Sect. 4]). Section 5 extensively treats the notion of “standard language”. In particular, the authors address cases of pluricentric standard languages and of multiple standard languages in one country. Diglossia is the focus of Section 6, whereas dialect borrowing is dealt with in the concluding section (7).

Chapter 11 “Dialect geography and dialectology”
The chapter is devoted to the study of dialects. After the introduction, the authors give two examples of dialect interaction, the first of which, the Chicago sound shift, was already familiar to the reader from Ch. 4 on sound change, and the other being /ū/ in the Low Countries. These two examples allow the authors to introduce the concepts of focal, transition, and relic areas in the subsequent section (3). The usefulness of dialectology is addressed in Section 4 in the light of Indo-European linguistics. This section constitutes a bridge to Section 5, on isoglosses and regional dialects. Here, an illuminating example is drawn from the German-speaking area (Second Sound Shift). The example is, like any throughout the book, of a highly didactic effect. Section 6, which concludes the chapter, deals with one of the effects migration can have on language, i.e. dialect leveling.

Chapter 12 “Language spread, link languages, and bilingualism”
After having provided discussion on dialects, dialect continua, and similar phenomena, the authors rightly move on to considering link languages, i.e. linguae francae. They provide several examples from different times and from all around the globe (e.g. English, Hindi, Sanskrit), including artificial languages such as Esperanto and Volapük. The phenomenon of interference is addressed in Section 2, and this serves as an introduction to the subsequent section (3) on code switching and code mixing. Substratum languages and related issues are presented in Section 4. The chapter ends with a discussion on koinés and an outlook section, which summarizes the themes discussed in the chapter and introduces the reader to the themes of the next one.

Chapter 13 “Convergence: Dialectology beyond language boundaries”
This chapter is dedicated to the phenomenon of dialectal convergence in larger areas, i.e. across language boundaries. The authors first introduce the notion of convergence and related concepts. In the subsequent sections, they provide actual examples of convergence: Kupwar (South-East Asia, Section 2), the Balkans (Section 3), South Asia (Indian subcontinent, Section 4). A very brief section (5) is dedicated to Europe in general. The concluding section (6) links this chapter to Ch. 11 and highlights the similarities of themes and approaches treated.

Chapter 14 “Pidgins, creoles, and related forms of language”
Having treated dialects, link languages, and dialect/language convergence in the preceding chapters, it was most natural to move on to treating pidgin and creoles in this chapter. The authors begin with dedicating a section to definitions (2) before moving on to addressing the origin of pidgins (3). In this section, earlier and later ideas on how pidgins arose are reviewed. Trade jargons and similar other manifestations of language are addressed in Section 4, with numerous examples. Creoles are analyzed in Section 5 and decreolization in Section 6. In both sections, reference is made to cases treated in the preceding chapters, so that the readers can better orientate themselves.

Chapter 15 “Language death”
This chapter, as the title eloquently shows, deals with language death. The chapter comprises only one section, where the authors present how languages die out, providing examples from different historical and linguistic scenarios. The chapter also deals with “language resurrection” and concludes with ethical considerations on the role of linguists in society.

Chapter 16 “Comparative method: Establishing language relationship”
After a multiple-chapter section on dialects, dialectology, and related phenomena, the authors return to the heart of comparative linguistics. Being aware of the several-pages-long hiatus, the authors start this chapter with a repeated quotation from Ch. 2, thus establishing a bridge between the initial part of the book and this final bit. A list of lexical correspondences between different European languages eases the reader into the subsequent discussion, where the authors review the possible, and actual, relationships among the languages listed in the table. Also, they importantly stress that some similarities may be (and in a host of cases actually are) accidental, whereas other words which, at first sight, do not look anything like each other, are actually cognates. The methods used here draw from those introduced in the chapter on sound change. Section 2 focuses on chance similarities, onomatopoeia, and so-called “nursery words”. Linguistic contact, and the similarity effect due to it, is the focus of Section 3. Section 4 counterbalances Section 2 inasmuch it reviews systematic correspondences. Some discussion is offered on shared idiosyncracies in Section 5 before moving on to Section 6 “Reconstruction”. Here, the authors discuss the main tenets and procedural rules of linguistic reconstruction, i.e. the minimum requirements a linguistic reconstruction should satisfy in order to be plausible. Section 7 is dedicated to the epistemological question of what can be reconstructed and how confident can we be of any given reconstruction. This section is important in that at this point in the book, the very same questions must have occurred to the student! The final section is then devoted to other linguistic families and reconstruction within them (Finno-Ugric, Turkic, Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic, etc.).

Chapter 17 “Proto-World? The question of long-distance genetic relationships”
This chapter deals with the interesting ultimate question of language relationship across the boundaries of linguistic macro-families. A review is given of the most notable proposals concerning pre-historical language relationship (e.g. the Nostratic theory). A step further is moved in Section 2, which reviews longer-distance comparison of languages, e.g. the case of Dravidian and Uralic. Section 3 briefly touches upon the issue of “unrelatableness” of languages. Lexical mass comparison (and problems related to it) is reviewed in Section 4. It is concluded that there is no other viable method than the traditional one presented in Ch. 16, Sect. 6. Again, the didactic method the authors use is of great merit. The concluding section (5) explores the topic of the origin of language among humans.

Chapter 18 “Linguistic paleontology: Historical linguistics, history, and prehistory”
The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the interface between historical linguistics and cultural history, i.e. what can the historical study of linguistic forms tell us about cultural history, and vice versa, how can cultural history help us in shedding light on the historical study of languages. The chapter opens with two caveat sections. Firstly, on the term Aryan and its history, and secondly on the internal chronology of Proto-Indo-European. Section 4 focuses on religion, poetry, mythology, society, and comparative law. It provides a glimpse into several points of contact between what could be interpreted as a pretty arid area of study, historical linguistic reconstruction, and a lively one, the study of how our forefathers lived, what they did, how they thought. These two fields are inextricably intertwined. Material culture is dealt with in Section 5, with examples from the Indo-European language family. Economy is the subject of Section 6. In it, it is further shown how historical linguistics sheds light on prehistory. And this is also the aim of the subsequent section (7), where linguistic evidence for words for ‘wheel’ and ‘horse’ is provided and linked with archaeological findings. Section 8 reviews different theories on the original home of Proto-Indo-European. After having considered pros and cons of the theories presented, the authors conclude that “an origin in the Eurasian Steppes (as opposed to Anatolia, my addition) is the best hypothesis, given the linguistic and archaeological/archaeozoological evidence available.” Section 9 deals with genomic studies and historical linguistics. It first describes the use of the word “race” in linguistics and its misuse during Nazi rule, and it subsequently contextualizes it and provides evidence against said misuse, the danger of which is, given the times we live in, always behind the corner. This is important, also in relation to the ethical issues raised earlier and the role of linguists in society. It is indeed encouraging, and didactically relevant, to let the student know that linguists do not necessarily (and, as a rule, should not) live in a ivory tower of knowledge. Subsection 9.2 presents recent scientific findings in genomics and how these relate to questions of language relationship. Section 10 somewhat pulls the strings together on the issues of ideology and comparative linguistics. In it, the authors further contextualize examples from the preceding sections (e.g. the use of Aryan, the original abode of the Indo-Europeans, etc.). The final section (11) shortly summarizes the main themes of the chapter.

Chapter notes and suggested readings
In order to make the reading of the book user-friendlier, the authors decided to avoid footnotes in the text but rather to write a separate chapter in which notes and suggestions for further reading are given. The chapter does not feature endnotes, as one might expect, but is rather divided according to the main chapters. Under each of them, single (or multiple) sections are listed, together with the relative suggested readings.


Hock and Joseph’s handbook is structured in a coherent and logical way. The chapters are written in an essential and effective way. As the authors explain in the preface, they have made a certain number of improvements to the text in this third revised edition. They expressly point out that these changes are, at least in part, due to suggestions and critiques to the previous edition(s). In addition, the authors explain that the content, and reference to the literature, have been updated, in keeping with the more general undertaking of publishing a revised edition of this textbook. This is, in fact, rightly pointed out, as authors of textbooks bear perhaps a greater burden than those of specialist books, for the audience is different. In the latter case, the expected readership is the author’s own peers, who have the necessary knowledge to critically evaluate the content of what they read. In the former case, the readership is entirely different, namely students, be they absolute beginners or advanced. The author is therefore called to fulfill a chiefly didactic role, for the readership is, in all likelihood, in the process of acquiring the knowledge which will, later on, make them specialists in the field of knowledge which they are diving into by reading a textbook. Hock and Joseph’s book is very well planned and, in my opinion, it carries out its didactic purpose to an above-average level. The explanations are very plain and several examples are repeated throughout the book, thus making it possible for the readers not just to orientate themselves better, but also to see how the very same example touches different areas of interest. In addition, the authors added a novelty (as far as I am concerned), namely some discussion on sign languages. In particular, they show how some of the mechanisms at work in those languages are similar to those at work in spoken languages. Apart from the book’s content, one can say that the authors’ merit is the style in which the book is written, as they achieve their didactic goal by using a lively language, not seldom colored with humor or personal, yet never uncalled for, anecdotes. The style of the book makes it also accessible to a general audience, yet without over-exemplifications or trivializations.

Typos are very few throughout the book, and the same is valid for inaccuracies (e.g. the Icelandic word sími and its compounds is cited as síma, which is not the nom. sg.), which nevertheless do not diminish the didactic value of the book. I am sure that they will be corrected, should a fourth edition be published.
I am a last-year 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, comparative Germanic linguistics
and language planning and policy studies.

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ISBN-13: 9783110609691
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