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Review of  Historical Linguistics

Reviewer: Camil Staps
Book Title: Historical Linguistics
Book Author: Margaret E. Winters
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 32.1438

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The book under review is intended as a comprehensive introduction to historical linguistics. It is aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students with the background a typical introductory course would provide. As a comprehensive introduction, it has chapters covering lexical, phonetic, phonological, morphological, and syntactic change. These five core chapters are surrounded by a general introduction in two chapters, and, at the end of the book, chapters on actuation and spread, methodology, and a discussion on causation and prediction of change. Each chapter comes with a couple of mostly open-ended questions as well as some suggestions for further study, which can be taken as the starting point of a term paper or senior project. There are no answer keys. The examples come mainly but not exclusively from Germanic and Romance.

What is special about this book is that it takes Cognitive Linguistics as its framework. It thus emphasizes the cognitive, physiological, and social backdrop of language change.


This is a textbook of historical linguistics and it discusses family trees and wave diagrams, phonemic mergers and splits, grammaticalization, the comparative method, etc., as one would expect. One can always quibble about the relative importance of topics and whether some things should have been included or not. In a course, the teacher can always provide some supplemental material to shift the emphasis, so I will try to avoid doing this: I will not describe the contents of each chapter in much detail, and will skip over some sections, highlighting instead a number of cases where the cognitive background of the book is most clearly visible and discussing these in more depth. It is after all with this cognitive perspective that the book really makes a contribution.

The first chapter begins with some introductory remarks which function as a teaser for the rest of the book, including a concrete example of the ways a language may change: four English translations of the first verses of Genesis, from different time periods, are given, describing the differences in lexicon, morphology, and syntax. Winters then explains what it means to take Cognitive Grammar as a framework. This section may be directed more toward the instructor than the student, especially the undergraduate one; basic notions like embodiment are explained (for the development of spatial vocabulary), but only briefly. This is of course not a major problem given that the book is not an introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. The overview of the book that is given at the end of chapter 1 should have been structured better. As it stands, the following chapters are described out of order, and some chapters are not mentioned in the overview.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the ways in which languages can be similar or different to each other, and is still somewhat introductory. The author explains well how universal human features (physiological as well as cognitive) limit differences between languages. She then moves on to the classical tree and wave models (for the latter, a concrete figure instead of an abstract one would have been appreciated, like the Indo-European example of the tree model). The final section is on language contact, which, after drawing attention to the effect of the duration and intensity of contact and the reasons for borrowing (some necessity or attraction to the donor language), makes a distinction between stratal influence, areal influence, and pidgins and creoles. Here the division could have been made clearer. The terms 'substrate' and 'superstrate' could easily be missed in the text, and adstrates are discussed under areal instead of stratal influence—together with Sprachbunds. As explained, all types of stratal influences presuppose regional coexistence of multiple languages, while examples such as Yiddish (with a Hebrew-Aramaic adstrate) and the Greek and Latin adstrate in scientific terminology ('terminology' being a case in point) could have been adduced to clearly keep these situations apart.

With Chapter 3 ('Lexical change') the main body of the book, a series of chapters on change on different levels, begins. It starts with a basic discussion of coinage and lexical loss and then works out an example of a radial set of the meanings of English 'cup'. It then generalizes and gives specific terms for processes of change (generalization, narrowing, melioration, pejoration, shift) and the conceptual paths behind it (metaphor and metonymy). A minor comment could be that melioration and pejoration could have been described as specific kinds of shift instead of completely separate processes. On the other hand, metaphor and metonymy could have been kept apart more clearly. Winters argues that the extension of 'leg' (body part) to 'support for table or chair' is metonymical (p. 66, citing Urban 2015), while Urban describes this extension as metaphorical (pp. 374–375: the shift from ‘bone’ to ‘leg’ is metonymical, based on spatial contiguity, but the extension to table legs depends on similarity and is metaphorical). It is also not entirely clear what role metaphor and metonymy play in Winters’ view. At first, they are described as causing change like generalizations, narrowings, etc. ('the conceptual paths taken by language users in causing change', p. 63); later they are mentioned as separate processes of change parallel to generalization, narrowing, etc. ('processes as narrowing or amelioration bring about new or transformed members [of a semantic set], as do metaphor and metonymy'). Because of small apparent inconsistencies like this, the reader does not walk away with a solid framework to work with. On the other hand, it has been a good decision to start with a chapter on lexical change (which so often comes at the end), and to introduce radial sets already here, where the changes can be understood on an intuitive level. Cognitive aspects also play an important role here—naturally when discussing metaphor and metonymy, but also for instance in the discussion of pejoration with the example of the term 'lady' and the feminist objection to it (pp. 60–62), and most importantly in a final section on general tendencies (such as spatial meanings being more basic than abstract ones; pp. 68–69).

Cognitive aspects are of course less relevant in the discussion of phonetic change in chapter 4, although this chapter does end with some remarks on the reasons for such changes (imitation, borrowing, fortitions and lenitions). The next chapter ('Phonological change') relies more on the cognitive framework, as it describes phonemes as radial sets of sounds, and phonological change as changes in such sets. This allows the author to draw some parallels with lexical change, describing each as operations on (members of) radial sets.

Chapter 6 ('Morphological change') begins with the coinage of new words by adding affixes and changes to words due to reanalysis of word boundaries. In a way this section is an addendum to Chapter 3 ('Lexical change'), but because the processes discussed here do not so much change the semantic sets of existing words as they change the morphological representation of semantic sets (or create whole new semantic sets), its place in Chapter 6 is indeed more suitable. The chapter also describes analogy, discussing in much depth the six cognitively highly relevant tendencies of analogical processes described by Kuryɬowicz (1945). These tendencies also serve to restrict the explanatory power of analogy (e.g., 'basic forms influence derived forms'), an important methodological point. Finally it is explained how cognitive processes lead to certain words being grouped together (such as small numerals or kinship terms), which then as a group undergo the same changes. (It is not clear to me why it is included in this chapter, since the examples concern phonetic change, but the observation itself is useful.)

The last chapter on a specific component of language looks primarily at the semantic sides of syntactic change (emphasising, for example, how the French negator 'pas' was first used with verbs of movement in the sense of 'walk not even a step', then generalized to other environments; p. 147). The cognitive side of word order change (pp. 151–161) could have been worked out more (why do languages shift more often from OV to VO than vice versa?). The section on word order change also contains a discussion of iconicity (exemplified with dislocation: 'I like him' vs. 'Him, I like'), but it is mainly synchronic, and its relation to the rest of the section is not entirely clear. This section then finishes with the analytic-synthetic cycle, which also does not seem to be necessarily related to word order change.

The last three chapters discuss some theoretical and methodological topics. Chapter 8 considers how change begins, spreads, and can finally be said to have taken place. It contains useful examples and is more elaborate than what has already been said about this throughout the book, if somewhat repetitive because of this.

The penultimate chapter discusses methodology. It begins by explaining some issues in philology (palaeographical problems, corruptions, etc.) and corpus data (e.g. query types). I feel this section is too general to be truly useful or memorable; this kind of issue is in my opinion only truly understood once one has actually worked with ancient sources or corpora. The chapter then turns to the comparative method, internal reconstruction, and syntactic reconstruction. But here as well the explanations are somewhat superficial, sufficient as toy examples that serve to follow an argument but not enough to prepare the student for more complex problems.

The final chapter summarises the main cognitive aspects the book has dwelled on, and adds some theoretical considerations. A new aspect introduced here is the question to what extent change is predictable (based on typology and frequent grammaticalization patterns). Other topics such as different causes for change (biological, social, cognitive) depend almost entirely on the preceding chapters.

On the whole, the book is a pleasant read despite the occasional run-on sentence (p. 114: 'To summarize, then, phonological change can affect entire systems and not just individual sounds, although one of the most basic changes is phonologization, by which phonetic entities become phonemes, which as a result become the prototypical member of a complex of allophones'). Copy editing issues are rare and almost never hinder understanding. However, there are three aspects that make me hesitant to advise it as a textbook.

First, there are relatively few exercises and these are sometimes unclear. More importantly, no answer keys are provided, which are essential for self-learners. It would also have been useful if the exercises would have been interspersed throughout the text, so that the student knows when they are (or should be) ready to address them, and which sections they should review when they have trouble with certain exercises. The exercises could also have been subdivided, gradually feeding the student more information, and thus forcing them to reconsider their answers. Such an organisation might be more effective in teaching methodology, for example to realize which data can be ignored for the time being.

Second, the structure is at times hard to follow. I have commented on particular cases above; I believe that a textbook should highlight the important terms and give a clear definition for each of them. In this book, terms are described only through examples and in some cases the differences can be unclear. In addition, a list of key concepts at the end of each chapter or learning objectives at the beginning would make the content easier to digest.

Third, while there are examples throughout the book, they are generally only discussed rather succinctly. The author does not guide the reader through an increasingly complex analysis, but presents the example from the outset in full regalia. The radial set example (pp. 54–57), for instance, is presented as is, without explaining why the given prototype is indeed prototypical, or what guidelines can be used to choose where to draw the lines between distinct meanings. Although this is not problematic per se, since examples can be worked out in the classroom, this does make the book less suitable for self-study.

The cognitive perspective of the book is helpful. It also allows the author to exploit parallels between similar types of changes on different linguistic levels. These abstract parallels may not be appreciated by all (under)graduate readers, but the book is also understandable without these connections.

However, the desire to draw attention to cognitive aspects leads to some repetition, especially where it is harder to integrate these aspects. Thus the chapters on phonetic and phonological change both end with a general discussion on (motivations for) imitation, fortition, and lenition, topics which to some extent had already been covered in Chapter 2, and treated in more detail in the final chapters of the book. In the end, the cognitive processes that the author points to are so infrequent and similar to each other that I wonder whether it would not be better to fully present them at the end of a more traditionally set-up textbook. Such a section on 'Cognitive aspects' could for example have a section on semantic sets and their application in various components of language, highlighting similarities, whereas this discussion is now spread out throughout the book.

Let me end with a positive note though. When, shortly after receiving the book, I was looking for a documented example of people consciously adapting their speech to sound more like they belong to a specific social class, I found one such example in just a few minutes (p. 175). Therefore, although I am not convinced this book is suitable as a first introduction to historical linguistics, it is certainly useful for historical linguists seeking to learn more about cognitive aspects, and to some extent also for cognitive linguists seeking to do historical work.


Kuryɬowicz, Jerzy. 1945. La nature des procès dits ''analogiques''. Acta Linguistica 5: 121–138.

Urban, Mattias. 2015. Lexical Semantic Change and Semantic Reconstruction. In C. Bowern and B. Evans (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics, 374–392. London and New York: Routledge.
Camil Staps is a PhD candidate at Leiden University. He received his M.A. in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies from the same university and holds a M.Sc. in Software Science from the Radboud University Nijmegen. His research focuses on the syntax-semantics interface in Biblical Hebrew and related languages, in particular with respect to reciprocal constructions, prepositions, and their interaction.