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Review of  Historische Sprachwissenschaft [Historical Linguistics]

Reviewer: Stefan Hartmann
Book Title: Historische Sprachwissenschaft [Historical Linguistics]
Book Author: Péter Maitz
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3525

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EDITOR: Maitz, Péter
TITLE: Historische Sprachwissenschaft
SUBTITLE: Erkenntnisinteressen, Grundlagenprobleme, Desiderate
SERIES TITLE: De Gruyter Studia Linguistica Germanica. Vol. 110.
YEAR: 2012

Stefan Hartmann, Deutsches Institut, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

“Where is historical linguistics headed?” [“Wohin steuert die Historische
Sprachwissenschaft?”] -- This was the central question of a workshop held at
Debrecen University in September 2009. 14 papers presented there have now been
collected in the volume “Historische Sprachwissenschaft: Erkenntnisinteressen,
Grundlagenprobleme, Desiderate” [“Historical linguistics: epistemological
interests, foundational problems, desiderata”]. All contributions are in German.

In his opening chapter, editor Péter Maitz traces the history of the discipline
up to the present “status quo”, focusing especially on the heterogeneity of
current (German) historical linguistics. Drawing on Kuhn’s ([1962] 1970)
“Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and anticipating the results of an ongoing
meta-scientific research project (cf. Maitz 2006), he stipulates three periods
in the history of the discipline which can be distinguished according to two
major criteria: a) the stability of the discipline’s foundations, i.e. the
extent to which there is a consensus about the norms and values guiding the
research activities, and b) the rigidness of the boundary between the scientific
community of a discipline and its scientific environment. The 19th century,
according to Maitz, was characterized by a relatively broad consensus on
(historical-comparative, later neogrammarian) research norms and methods as well
as by a clearly demarcated scientific community. This -- in Maitz’s term --
“progressive” period was then followed by a period of “stagnation” in the first
half of the 20th century. Although the scientific community maintained both
solid group boundaries and stable disciplinary foundations, their methods
suffered a severe loss of prestige and were radically questioned. A major turn
then occurred in the 1970s, leading to the current third period characterized by
instable foundations (reflected in a variety of approaches) and less rigid group
boundaries. Furthermore, Maitz discusses whether historical linguistics should
be considered an “immature” science in Kuhn’s sense and to what extent Kuhn’s
theory can be applied to this discipline (and the humanities in general) in the
first place.

In “Verstehen wir den Sprachwandel richtig?” [“Do we understand language change
properly?”], Dieter Cherubim poses four major questions for any theory of
language change: (1) What is language change?, (2) How can we detect language
change?, (3) How can we model language change in its different stages?, (4) How
can we trace motivations for or even causes of language change?. Approaching
language change as a fundamental working principle of language itself, he
proposes a five-stage model of language change comprising the phases of (1)
motivation, (2) innovation, (3), diffusion, (4) integration, and (5)
consequences (i.e. chain reactions in the language system motivated by an
earlier change).

“Sprachwandel: Ursachen und Wirkungen” [“Language change: cause and effect”] by
Jenő Kiss discusses the interconnections of the three factors language, language
use, and language user in a theory of language change, language users being
explicitly conceived of as both biological and social beings. Kiss argues that
the mechanism of homeostasis, according to which “any living organism is
constantly interacting with its environment and therefore constantly changing in
a way that allows it to uphold its inner state of balance and its organic
functions” (Kiss, p. 52, my translation), plays a key role in language change.
This entails that causes of language change can only be found in the linguistic
activity performed by bio-psycho-socially determined human beings (p. 59).

Damaris Nübling reflects on “the mutual benefit of historical linguistics and
language typology” [“Vom gegenseitigen Nutzen von Historischer
Sprachwissenschaft und Sprachtypologie”]. With three examples, she illustrates
how linguistic typology -- or rather, different typologies -- can be
operationalized to explain language change: 1) The distribution of German
linking elements (e.g. Freund-es-kreis, lit. “friend-LINKING ELEMENT-circle”
‘circle of friends’) can be explained in terms of the development of German from
‘syllable’ to ‘word language’ (in the sense of Szczepaniak 2007, see below); 2)
some changes in Early New High German verbal inflection (c. 1350-1650) can be
explained by Bybee’s (1985) typology of relevance; 3) the diachronic development
of German pronouns of address as delineated by Simon (2003) can be accounted for
with the help of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) universal typology of politeness.

In “Lautwandel verstehen” [“Understanding phonological change”], Renata
Szczepaniak sketches the typology of syllable vs. word languages and the
development of German from syllable to word language. This process manifests
itself in numerous sound changes highlighting word boundaries, such as
word-final consonantal neutralization (“Auslautverhärtung”) and consonant
epenthesis. She illustrates the consequences of profiling the phonological word
with the example of German genitive variation (“des Pferd-s” vs. “des Pferd-es”
‘the horse-GEN’): the choice of the genitive form depends on a) the phonological
size and complexity of the base, and b) the quality and quantity of the final

Anna Molnár explores “What research on grammaticalization and historical grammar
could tell each other” [“Was Grammatikalisierungsforschung und Historische
Grammatik einander zu sagen hätten”]. She deplores the lack of interaction
between these fields and elucidates how the description of historical grammars
could benefit from grammaticalization research, and vice versa. Using the
examples of German modal particles, verbs, and adverbs, she shows both diverging
epistemological interests and possibilities for cross-fertilization in the two
approaches: While (traditional) grammarians have to make decisions about word
class categorization, grammaticalization research suggests a continuum of word
classes (p. 116). Molnár argues that historical grammars should incorporate the
results of grammaticalization research that trace the diachronic evolution of
different word classes (e.g., the emergence of German modal particles through
grammaticalization of certain adjectives and adverbs).

While most of the contributions draw on German data, Richard J. Watts’
“Sprachgeschichte oder die Geschichte einer Sprache?” [“Language history or the
history of a language?”] focuses on English. Within the framework of conceptual
metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson [1980] 2003) and conceptual integration
(Fauconnier and Turner 2002), he analyzes how historiography and linguistics
became intertwined in the first half of the 19th century. He argues that the
parallels drawn between the notion of a nation state on the one hand and
language on the other yielded a hegemonic “discourse archive” in the sense of
Foucault (p. 141) as well as a set of metaphors still in use (e.g. A COUNTRY IS
A PLANTATION -- A LANGUAGE IS A PLANT, as in “A language flourishes”). This
default perspective leads to the (narrowed) conception of language history as
the history of one national language.

Paul Rössler, in “Die Grenzen der Grenzen” [“The boundaries of boundaries”],
revisits a classical problem of German historical linguistics, namely,
periodization (see Roelcke 1998). He proposes a “fund of funds principle” to
develop a new model of periodization taking into account the insights of
previous periodization models rather than re-interpreting the findings from
historical language data.

Hiroyuki Takada’s paper deals with “‘Umgangssprache’ in der zweiten Hälfte des
18. Jahrhunderts” [“‘Colloquial language’ in the second half of the 18th
century”]. Drawing on Koch and Oesterreicher’s (e.g., 1994) model of conceptual
‘writtenness’ vs. ‘orality’ and ‘language of closeness’ vs. ‘language of
distance’, he works out four different uses of the German term “Umgangssprache”
[“colloquial language”] in 18th century texts differing both in mediality
(orality vs. writtenness) and in register (closeness vs. distance).

Stephan Elspaß addresses the question “Wohin steuern Korpora die Historische
Sprachwissenschaft?” [“Where are corpora leading historical linguistics?”] He
detects a severe “corpus plight” [“Korpusmisere”, p. 203] especially concerning
the Early New High German period and calls for explanatory adequacy in the
interpretation of corpus findings according to Ágel’s (2001: 319f.) “principle
of viability” stating that processes of language change cannot be described and
explained in idealized models. In this regard he questions Szczepaniak’s (e.g.,
2007, see also above) hypothesis that German has developed from a syllable to a
word language, contesting some of her key examples as both exceptional and only
occurring in written language and presenting counterexamples indicating an
improvement of the syllable structure rather than a highlighting of word boundaries.

In “Stil als Kategorie der soziopragmatischen Sprachgeschichte” [“Style as a
category in socio-pragmatic language history”], Noah Bubenhofer and Joachim
Scharloth first discuss the notion of “Stil” (roughly, “style”; the English and
the German terms cover a wide range of concepts but are not entirely congruent),
which they define as a “recurrent, socio-culturally significant way of
performing actions” [“rekurrente soziokulturell signifikante Form der
Handlungsdurchführung”, p. 231]. Employing an inductive, “corpus-driven” method,
they then try to uncover stylistic differences in a corpus comprising audiotape
protocols and flyers from the 1968 protest movement in Germany by means of a
complex n-gram analysis. Comparing two different milieus within this movement,
they find significantly different recurring patterns.

Bubenhofer’s second contribution, this one with Juliane Schröter, deals with
changing conceptualizations of the Alps and alpine climbing reflected in the
yearbooks of the Swiss Alpine Club. Again using n-gram analysis, they find a
twofold change in the perception of alpine climbing and mountain hiking: a) from
an objective exploration of an unfamiliar environment to a subjective experience
of unaccustomed circumstances; b) from a “recreational science”
[“Freizeitwissenschaft”, p. 278] of the educated middle class to a professional
extreme sport.

Andreas Gardt discusses the benefits and risks of viewing “Sprachgeschichte als
Kulturgeschichte” [“Language history as cultural history”]. Contrary to Maitz
(2006: 8), he does not see the diversification of historical linguistics as the
discipline accidentally striking out in the wrong direction [“unbeabsichtigt
betretener Irrweg”], but rather as an expression of social reality in which the
co-existence of different perspectives and methods is not only accepted but
regarded as suitable and fruitful. He makes a case for the cultural orientation
of historical linguistics, which seems especially appropriate for the object of
study, language (p. 297).

The last paper, “Sprachgeschichte und Diachronie in der Finnougristik”
[“Language history and diachrony in Finno-Ugrian studies”] by Marianne
Bakró-Nagy, points out some results of and desiderata for Finno-Ugrian studies.
The main areas of research include diachronic phonology and morphological
description; shortcomings, according to Bakró-Nagy, include neglect of
grammaticalization theory, historical syntax, and contact-linguistic research on
loan words. The main endeavor at present, however, should be the exploration and
description of endangered languages.

“Where is historical linguistics headed?” -- The question is illuminating and
thought-provoking as it urges historical linguists not to limit their horizon to
their own theoretical and methodological frameworks but rather to question their
own views and reasoning in the light of competing approaches. As Gardt rightly
states, the diversity of approaches within historical linguistics can be
regarded as an advantage rather than a drawback or even a sign of “immaturity”
in the sense of Kuhn ([1962] 1970). However, this heterogeneity is necessarily
accompanied by the danger of misunderstandings between different approaches or
the formation of distinct “camps”. This volume reflects both the potential and
some of the possible misunderstandings that spring from this heterogeneity.

Two examples illustrate the latter. Cherubim takes up his criticism of Keller’s
([1990] 2003) ‘invisible hand’ theory (also Cherubim 1982), stating that Keller
fails to bridge the gap between innovation and change and rejecting the idea
that language change takes place “behind language users’ backs” [“‘hinter dem
Rücken’ der Sprachbenutzer”, p. 33]. However, it is questionable whether the
general perceptibility of language change and an explanation in terms of
invisible hand processes (i.e. as language change “behind users’ backs”) exclude
each other. On the one hand, it is certainly true that language change usually
can be observed and reflected. Some instances manifest themselves in “linguistic
cases of doubt” in the sense of Klein (2003, 2009) or in metalinguistic debates.
On the other hand, some kinds of change, such as word-formation change, are
mostly long-term processes that go unnoticed synchronically for most language
users (cf. Munske 2002: 24). The same holds for the mostly unconscious processes
involved in lexicalization and grammaticalization (as opposed to, e.g., the
coinage of a novel term or the borrowing of a word). Therefore, it is not at all
misguided to view language change -- in Keller’s terms -- as a phenomenon of the
third kind, i.e. an unintended result of intentional human action (Keller [1990]
2003: 93), especially if we consider that the process of innovation is sometimes
itself unintentional (e.g. reanalysis, cf. Hopper and Traugott 2003: 50-53).
Bearing this in mind, Cherubim’s own intriguing model is not at all incompatible
with Keller’s invisible hand theory; rather, their approaches can be seen as
complementing each other.

Elspaß’ criticism of Szczepaniak’s work shows a potentially graver
misunderstanding. First and foremost, he overlooks the fact that the typology of
syllable vs. word languages, like most typologies, has to be taken with a grain
of salt. At no point does Szczepaniak (2006, 2007) claim an exceptionless,
unidirectional development of German from one end of the scale to the other;
rather, she sketches an overall tendency. At the same time, Elspaß
operationalizes a rather idealized typology himself, namely, the typology of
‘orality’ vs. ‘writtenness’, or ‘language of distance’ vs. ‘language of
closeness’. It is certainly true that the so-called “Neuhochdeutsche
Schriftsprache” (written New High German) established from the 15th/16th century
onwards (cf. Hartweg and Wegera 2005: 53) is not the language of everyday
conversation; however, the connection between spoken and written language in
Present Day German and earlier stages of German is much more complex than Elspaß
suggests. The relationship between oral and written language is heavily debated
even for Old High German (e.g., Hübner 2006: 42-44, for Middle High German, cf.
Bumke [1986] 2005: 596-637). The fact that Latin serves as a language of
distance, as Elspaß (p. 217) states, does not necessarily entail that the
majority of Old High German texts exhibits a language of closeness [“dass die
uns überlieferten althochdeutschen Texte prinzipiell nähesprachlich sind”, p.
217]. Rather, written Old High German is heavily influenced by Latin and is
therefore often said to lie between written and oral language (e.g., Ridder and
Wolf 2000: 431, 437f.). Elspaß’ caveat on the comparability of Szczepaniak’s
data is therefore not entirely substantiated. He makes an important point
nevertheless, as the limits of comparability between different stages of German
in corpus-based research are certainly worth considering, taking into account
parameters such as predominating text types, diverging places of origin (e.g.
monastery vs. court vs. town), etc. Szczepaniak’s study, however, has to be
understood as a contribution to linguistic theory rather than a corpus-based or
even corpus-driven work. In fact, the word “Korpus” (or “Corpus” -- both
variants exist in German) does not occur in Szczepaniak (2007). Thus, Elspaß’
criticism of Szczepaniak’s handling of corpus data seems out of place here.

However, the fact that such misunderstandings catch the eye can be a merit
rather than a shortcoming. The volume shows both the variety of approaches and
the ongoing controversies between different approaches, providing a valuable
basis for the discussion of the path historical linguistics should take. Maitz’s
introduction integrates those different approaches in an interesting, albeit
sketchy and sometimes over-simplified framework. For example, his assertion that
other approaches than the dominant neo-grammarian ones were generally ignored or
suppressed in the first “phase” of historical linguistics (p. 3) does not do
justice to historical reality. In fact, the neogrammarian framework was never
entirely undisputed (cf. Jankowsky 2001); Einhauser (2001: 1338) even states:
“Seldom has a [scientific] group been so heavily disputed from the very
beginning” [“selten ist eine Gruppe von Anfang an so umstritten
gewesen wie diese“]. It remains to be seen if Maitz will take up this point in
greater detail in his upcoming “Metasprachgeschichte”.

Of special interest are those contributions that illustrate perspectives mostly
overlooked for various reasons; for example, Bakró-Nagy’s paper introduces the
rather small field of Finno-Ugric studies, and Kiss’s contribution makes some
ideas of Hungarian research on language change accessible: of his 27 references,
17 are in Hungarian. Moreover, Kiss addresses another open question not posed
explicitly in Maitz’s introduction but which flares up, for example, in
Cherubim’s (p. 38, fn. 23) strict exclusion of questions of language evolution
from the subject area of historical linguistics, namely, the question of the
interrelation of language-internal, cultural, and biological factors in
processes of language change. In this respect, it is regrettable that Kiss’s
contribution -- as he himself concedes -- remains rather sketchy and leaves some
relevant recent literature on the interplay of biological and cultural factors
in language and language change unconsidered (e.g., Christiansen and Chater
2008, Beckner et al. 2009).

All in all, however, this volume is an inspiring overview of approaches in
current historical linguistics. Although the scope of most contributions is
limited to German diachronic linguistics, many insights should be applicable to
theories of language change in general. Consequently, it is highly recommendable
for anyone interested in Historical Linguistics and the direction -- or rather,
directions -- this discipline is taking or is about to take.

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Überlegungen am Beispiel der Serialisierung im Verbalkomplex. In: Zeitschrift
für Germanistische Linguistik 29, 319-331.

Beckner, Clay, et al. 2009. Language Is A Complex Adaptive System. Position
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Brown, Penelope; Levinson, Stephen C. 1987. Politeness. Some Universals in
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Bumke, Joachim. [1986] 2005. Höfische Kultur. Literatur und Gesellschaft im
hohen Mittelalter. 11th ed. München: dtv.

Bybee, Joan. 1985. Morphology. A Study of the Relation between Meaning and Form.
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Cherubim, Dieter. 1983. Trampelpfad zum Sprachwandel? Zu Rudi Kellers Beitrag in
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Christiansen, Morten H.; Chater, Nick. 2008. Language as shaped by the brain.
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Einhauser, Eveline. 2001. Die Entstehung und frühe Entwicklung des
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Fauconnier, Gilles; Turner, Mark. 2002. The Way we Think. Conceptual Blending
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Hartweg, Frédéric; Wegera, Klaus-Peter. 2005. Frühneuhochdeutsch. Eine
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Hopper, Paul J.; Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2003. Grammaticalization. 2nd ed.
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Hübner, Gert. 2006. Ältere deutsche Literatur. Eine Einführung. Tübingen, Basel:

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Stefan Hartmann is a PhD student in historical linguistics at the University of Mainz, Germany. He is currently conducting a corpus-based study on the diachronic change of German nominalization patterns. Apart from historical and corpus linguistics, his research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics.