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Review of  Fundamentals of Diachronic Linguistics

Reviewer: Christopher D. Sams
Book Title: Fundamentals of Diachronic Linguistics
Book Author: Göran Hammarström
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.1908

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AUTHOR: Göran Hammarström
TITLE: Fundamentals of Diachronic Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Linguistics Edition 84
YEAR: 2011

Christopher D. Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University

Hammarström states that the purpose of the book is to provide “new viewpoints
and elaborations on [his] earlier publications” (5); he specifically lists six
of his previous works, written between 1965 and 1999, that provide the grounding
for his current work (though many more are referenced throughout the book).

The book is divided into 11 parts:

In part 1, the introduction, Hammarström summarizes the book, pointing out that
“Many linguists, including myself, have found that in the last 50 years many
publications have used complicated formulations and rule systems which look
impressive but say little or nothing of interest about language” (5). He goes on
to explain that since Ferdinand de Saussure made the distinction between
synchronic and diachronic linguistics in 1916, he [Hammarström] will use the
term ‘historical linguistics’ for older orientations (e.g., the work done prior
to 1916 -- largely the work done in the 19th century), and ‘diachronic
linguistics’ to refer to the “newer orientations” post-Saussure. He states that
one of the major pitfalls of post-Saussurian linguistics is that many linguists
misunderstand (and misapply) Saussure’s definitions and explanations of
synchrony and diachrony. Hammarström goes on to claim that language change based
on cause and effects does not exist, but that variatio delectat is the basic
principle which drives language change. He also refers readers to his
Fundamentals of Synchronic Linguistics (2008) for “more units and viewpoints
than other accounts” (5).

Hammarström continues by offering a history of orientations, approaches, and
viewpoints in part 2. He covers Structuralism, The Prague School, and
Generativism and more fully explains the difference between historical and
diachronic linguistics (introduced in part 1). Parts 2 and 3 address the
difference between synchrony and diachrony, referring again to Saussure’s
terminology and the fact that “... not all modern linguistics, whether they all
would call themselves phonologists, structuralists, or something else, have
understood Saussure’s synchrony correctly” (20). Not only does he posit that
there is a disparity between Saussure’s definition of ‘synchronic linguistics’
and modern interpretations of it, but he also posits, in part 3, that other
terms are misused. He states that Martinet and Chomsky misuse terminology like
‘explanation’ and ‘explain’ by conflating the meanings and applying the terms
too broadly.

In part 4, Hammarström elaborates on his view that language changes are
“different from how they are generally understood” (21), including his ideas
that language changes are unpredictable, cause one “well-functioning” feature to
another “well-functioning” one, and are best described through sociolinguistic
methods. He then refers readers to his 1966 work, Diachronische Linguistik
(1966), to better understand how “phonemes are added, disappear, or merge” (21).

Part 5.1 examines phonemic, prosodemes, syllabemes, (according to Hammarström,
“coarticulations stretched over phonemes”), morphemes, lexemes, sememes, and
syntagmemes. These terms are used but not fully defined; for example, his
definition of ‘prosodeme’ is mentioned in a footnote: “Prosodemes of various
kinds are defined are described in some detail in my publications 1998a, p.
103-117, and 2008, p. 11-15” (p. 39). Part 5.2 examines the β-level of
contouremes and stylemes. He elaborates on the γ-level, writing about idiolect,
sociolect, and dialect, and finishes with the δ-level, and the ε-level. In all,
there are five levels of distinction; these distinctions are best understood as
a continuation of his previous works, as the levels (like the vocabulary) are
not extensively defined in this volume. The five levels are meant to represent
the different aspects of language change, from sounds to syntax.

Parts 6, 7, and 8 deal with the above levels and features in regard to the
following areas: changes in written language (part 6), spoken language changing
written language (part 7), and written language changing spoken language (part 8).

Parts 9, 10, and 11 are a Conclusion, References, and Author Index, respectively.

Overall, the book is relatively short (67 pages) but packed densely with
information; it has a cohesive flow and dialogue with examples mainly from
Romance and Germanic languages. The font is very small and difficult on the eyes
to read; the book could have benefitted from a much larger font size. It is
abundantly clear that the author has done extensive reading, writing, and
reflecting on the subject; however, only the author’s own works are listed in
the references section. Hammarström cites extensively in text and in footnotes,
but does not provide the reader with a list of references beyond his own
publications (though there is an Author Index, which points readers to the pages
with the bibliographic information in footnotes). This is a major shortcoming of
the book; most students and beginning researchers would not find this book
accessible, as it lacks a comprehensive bibliography and subject index. In order
to ground themselves in the content, readers would have to go page-by-page and
note the pages on which important concepts are mentioned (or footnotes where
bibliographic information is given).

The book is intended for specialists in diachronic linguistics who are well read
in both the field’s history and schools of thought, as well as major theories
not just in diachronic linguistics, but also phonetics, phonology, morphology,
syntax, semantics, pragmatics, information structure, and sociolinguistics.
Above all, the reader will be at a loss as the author makes the a priori
assumption (clearly alluded to in the introduction) that the reader is familiar
with his previous works. For example, as noted above, explicit definitions of
key terms, such as ‘prosodeme’, are not included in the text. Instead, the
author refers readers to his previous works (some of which will not be
accessible to all readers, e.g. those written in German and Spanish). Regarding
the levels to which Hammarström refers (e.g., β, γ), the back cover of his
earlier book Fundamentals of Synchronic Linguistics (2007) provides some
insight: “The α-level deals with phonemes, prosodemes, syllabemes, the β-level
with contouremes and stylemes, the γ-level with idiolemes, sociolemes, and
dialemes, the δ-level with proxemes and kinemes, and the ε-level with text
aspects.” In other words, in order to follow the discussion, one must read the
entire book from cover to cover, stopping to note references that will be
necessary to follow the discussion, read the prerequisite works, and then reread
the book. The reader also should have a reading knowledge of German, French, and
Spanish, as pivotal quotes are provided in the original language without a gloss
and many references cited were written in the above languages.

A major part of the theory is variatio delectat (a term borrowed from Cicero).
The author states, “The motive seems most often to be the pleasure of variation,
variatio delectat (β1). A speaker says something new, which may be a sound, a
word or a longer construction, thinking it sounds good, funny, impressive or
such like ... . Perhaps a speaker wants to express his personality (γ1). In many
cases this speaker is not imitated by anyone and one forgets what he has said.
However, the new may become a language innovation if it spreads to a number of
other speakers and is incorporated into the language. It helps the spreading of
the innovation if the innovator and those who agree with him have prestige. A
high degree of solidarity in the innovating group would also be helpful” (22).
This quotation nicely summarizes Hammarström’s theory of language change,
showing that it is largely based on sociolinguistic factors rather than
grammatical explanations. He comments, “I assume that no speech community has
never adopted a system of sounds that does not function well. When the
innovation happens, the speakers change one well functioning sound for another
well functioning sound because they like the new sound better” (15). In fact, he
claims that since human language is largely unpredictable, attempting to
consider how languages might change in the future will not be very successful
(13). His notion of language change challenges the work of many researchers,
such as Arlotto (1972), Bynon (1999), Campbell (2004), Crowley (2002), Hopper
and Traugott (2003), and Trask (1996). Researchers such as these (and the
majority of those who work in linguistic typology) use concepts such as
grammaticalization (focusing then on grammatical reasons that may drive language
change) to show that there is some degree of predictability in language change
that is not predicated upon speaker choice.

Because Hammarström’s primary goal for this book is to expand on his previous
works and ideas (as stated above), he does meet that goal. His work could be
expanded in the future to include languages, such as African languages, that
have extensive bilingual (or even trilingual) speech communities, in which the
languages are in competition. It would be interesting to see how his notions on
language change (especially that changes are results of speaker choice) could be
applied to such speech communities.

Arlotto, Anthony. 1972. Introduction to Historical Linguistics. Boston: Houghton

Bynon, Theodora. 1999. Historical Linguistics. Boston: Cambridge University Press.

Crowley, Terry. 2002. An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (3rd ed.). New
York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Lyle. 2004. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (2nd ed.).
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fromkin, Victoria et al. (2000). An Introduction to Language (4th ed.). Boston,
MA: Cengage.

Hopper, Paul & Elizabeth Traugott. 2003. Grammaticalization (2nd ed.).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trask, R.L. 1996. Historical Linguistics. London: Arnold.

Christopher Sams received a Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature (Hispanic Linguistics Specialization) from SUNY Buffalo. He has taught courses at the college level in Spanish, Italian, English, and linguistics. His research interests include linguistic typology and universals, second language acquisition, foreign language teaching methodology, historical linguistics, and forensic linguistics.