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Review of  Exploring Language Change

Reviewer: David Hornsby
Book Title: Exploring Language Change
Book Author: Ishtla Singh Mari C. Jones
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.3032

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AUTHORS: Jones, Mari C. and Singh, Ishtla
TITLE: Exploring Language Change
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2006

David Hornsby, Lecturer in French, School of European Culture and
Languages, University of Kent.

This book explores the phenomenon of language change, with a particular
focus on the social contexts of its occurrence and its possible
motivations, including speakers' intentions and attitudes.

Using wide-ranging case studies presenting new or little-known data, Jones
and Singh draw a distinction between 'unconscious' and 'deliberate' change.
The discussion on 'unconscious' change considers phenomena such as the
emergence and obsolescence of individual languages, while the book also
includes detailed discussion on 'deliberate' change, traditionally
marginalised in favour of explorations of the 'unconscious' variety. The
sections on 'deliberate' change focus on issues of language planning,
including the strategies of language revival and revitalisation movements,
and also include a detailed exploration of what is arguably the most
extreme instance of 'deliberate' change; language invention for real-world

As a student-friendly text which covers a wide variety of language
situations, it also makes a clear, but often ignored, distinction between
concepts such as language policy and planning, and language revival and
revitalisation, and the innovative case studies which permeate the text
demonstrate that real-life language use is often much more complex than
theoretical abstractions might suggest.

This book will be extremely useful to students on a variety of courses
including sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and language policy and

From a teacher's perspective, an ideal textbook should be accessible
without over-simplifying, summarize current debates and thinking while
offering new perspectives, and present familiar and unfamiliar material in
an interesting way. These are clearly difficult tightropes for authors to
walk, but in ''Exploring Language Change'' Jones & Singh balance the
conflicting objectives admirably. Informative and eminently readable, the
book covers most of the ground one would expect in an introductory work,
using a refreshing mix of well-known and less familiar examples. The book
is neatly structured, its seven chapters following a logical sequence and
guiding the reader almost seamlessly through the separate stages of a
well-developed argument. While all the chapters are self-contained and the
reader may 'dip in' at any point, this is one linguistics textbook which
reads well from cover to cover. Each chapter contains an introduction to a
theme, one or more illustrative case-studies which are covered in some
detail, and a useful concluding discussion which summarizes the key
findings while challenging received views, and sets the scene for the next
chapter. A very strong feature of this book is the authors' readiness to
refine or challenge terminology which is often left ill-defined, and to
draw important new distinctions where necessary, for example between
language revitalisation (Ch.5) and language revival (Ch.6).

From the outset, Jones and Singh argue that language cannot profitably be
explored in isolation from its speakers, and accordingly reject a rigid
distinction between internally and externally motivated change. Conceptions
of internally motivated change, as the term is normally understood, are
discussed in Chapter 1. The material here is expertly handled and well
exemplified, but the authors can, I think, be accused of trying to do too
much: structuralist, neogrammarian, typological and generative approaches
are shoe-horned into 28 pages, and undergraduates in particular may the
discussion a little hard-going in places.

The main focus of the book, however, is on externally motivated change,
which is introduced in Chapter 2. A section on lexical borrowing and
loan-translation blends examples from French with fascinating data drawn
from Jèrriais, Breton and Turkish. Two well-known case studies of
convergence, namely the Balkans (2.4) and Kupwar (2.5) are presented before
a discussion of code-switching and code-mixing (2.6 and 2.7), and two final
case-studies, of Guernsey Norman French and Middle English, reinforce the
point that internal or external motivations of changes may in practice be
difficult to disentangle. Chapters 3 and 4 address two extreme outcomes of
externally-motivated change, namely language birth (Ch.3) and language
death (Ch.4). Sociopolitical considerations are, of course, central to
both, and these figure largely in two case studies of 'language birth': Tok
Pisin (3.3) and Scots (3.4). In their examination of language death, Jones
and Singh distinguish setting (the sociopolitical background which
precipitates obsolescence) and structure (changes resulting from contact
with a dominant variety). Using the case studies of East Sutherland Gaelic,
Pennsylvania German, French, and Welsh, they demonstrate how an
understanding of the social context is essential in distinguishing changes
in threatened varieties from those observed in 'healthy' ones.

Having considered what might be termed 'unconscious' changes, the authors
turn to 'conscious' changes in Chapters 5 (Language Planning and
Revitalization) and 6 (Language Revival). Aspects of status, corpus and
identity planning are explored via the examples of Jersey and the
Seychelles in Chapter 5, and the important distinction between language
planning and language policy is illustrated by a detailed and well
researched case study of the United States, which argues, not
uncontroversially, that the absence of an official language policy has in
fact masked de facto promotion of English. From revitalisation of
obsolescent languages, e.g. Jèrriais (5.4), Jones and Singh move to the
specific and highly complex issues surrounding revival of 'dead' languages
in Chapter 6. The case study of Revived Cornish (6.2) was for me the
highlight of the book, offering a fascinating insight into the resurrection
of a language whose last native speaker died in 1777. The discussion
highlights the difficult choices revivalists have had to make, and the
inevitable squabbles which have ensued, many of which reflect fundamentally
different conceptions of what Cornish is, or should be. Familiar problems
of dialectal fragmentation in a low-prestige language are compounded by
disputes over the appropriate temporal period to select as a model. A
paucity of linguistic resources has to be overcome either lexical borrowing
or by the creation of 'purer' but arguably more artificial neologisms from
Brythonic roots, with no agreement between 'realists' and
'fundamentalists'. Disputes over, for example, language planning goals or
orthography will be familiar from language obsolescence studies elsewhere
(e.g. Brittany), as will the failure of largely middle class revivalist
activity to resonate with the mass of the population: further evidence, if
it were needed, that language choices cannot be imposed from the top down.

The final chapter on artificial languages ('Language Invention') will
certainly raise eyebrows among linguists, but its inclusion is entirely
logical and, arguably, the book would have been incomplete without it.
There is, as the authors point out, relatively little to separate the
conscious linguistic invention involved in language revival from the
wholesale creation of entirely new languages. The case studies of Esperanto
(7.3) and Láadan (7.4), Suzette Haden Elgin's constructed language for
women, are used to illustrate the theme which underpins this book, namely
that languages cannot exist in a vacuum, and will ultimately develop along
the lines that their speakers, rather than an elite, want or need them too.
Both these languages, in very different ways, can be seen to have fallen
foul of this principle. In their desire to preserve an 'ideologically
neutral' Esperanto, for example, its creator Zamenhof and his supporters
appear to have become almost puritanical in their attempts to resist reform
or spontaneous change. That their efforts were unsuccessful is seen in the
fragmentation of the movement which followed the creation of its modified
form Ido, and in first-world war Esperanto usage for German propaganda
purposes. While Elgin's attitude to her creation was genuinely
non-proprietorial, the failure of Láadan to strike a chord among women
stemmed largely, the authors argue, from the flawed premise of universal
female experience on which it was based.

A number of excellent sociolinguistic histories of individual languages are
already available, but the publication of a wide-ranging, speaker-centred
introduction to language change is timely and welcome. This interesting and
thought-provoking book will be a fixture on undergraduate and graduate
reading lists for many years to come.

David Hornsby is Lecturer in French at the University of Kent, where he
teaches a range of courses in French and general linguistics. His research
interests are in variationist sociolinguistics and the history of French,
and he published 'Redefining Regional French: Koinéization and Dialect
Levelling in Northern France' in 2006.

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