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Review of  The History of Languages

Reviewer: Jason Doroga
Book Title: The History of Languages
Book Author: Tore Janson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3360

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AUTHOR: Janson, Tore
TITLE: The History of Languages
SUBTITLE: An Introduction
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

Jason P. Doroga, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of

This textbook is a highly readable introduction to the history of languages
intended for students and general readers with an interest in history,
anthropology, politics and linguistics. Janson (henceforth, J) states in the
preface that even though ''languages are contingent on history'' (xii) far too
often the study of the history of the people who use language is seen as a
separate discipline. This book consistently demonstrates that this should not be
the case. Though the central focus of the work is on the history of standard
European languages, other languages such as Arabic and Chinese are considered in
some detail.

Part I: Before History (1-47)
The scope of Chapter 1 (4-23) is epic and considers the history of humanity from
its origins (J ponders how the gift of language was conferred to Adam by God)
continuing to about 12,000 years ago with a brief description of the rise of the
numerous Khoisan languages of southern Africa (with their famous clicks) and the
indigenous languages of Australia. The central problem discussed is the
difficulty of establishing criteria for defining what a language is. Classifying
the world's languages has proven challenging because in many cases the speakers
themselves do not have a name for their own language (in the case of some
Khoisan languages) or speakers have established different names for languages
that do not appear to be substantially different (in the case of Australian
languages). The question is not resolved in this chapter, though J returns to it
later in the book.

As J acknowledges (24), this work is not a manual of historical linguistics, and
the description of historical changes in society far outweighs the strictly
linguistic content. That being said, Chapter 2 (24-47) introduces one of the
central tenets of historical linguistics: the concept of language groups and how
these groups spread. For example, the word 'bread' looks similar in English,
German ('Brot') and Swedish ('bröd'). Language groups spread for two main
reasons including wars and conquest (Romance, Semitic), as well as the spread of
new farming techniques (Bantu). The chapter suggests that the establishment of a
writing system explains why some language groups have been subject to great
fragmentation in their historical development while others appear to have been
able to resist fragmentation for very long periods of time.

Part II: The basis of history (48-74)
Chapter 3 (51-52), which at just two pages is considerably shorter than the
other chapters, asserts that ''one of the most important inventions in the
history of mankind'' (52) is writing. This is a critical chapter, and the
importance of writing is highlighted in almost every subsequent chapter. For
example Chapter 4 (53-58) discusses the origins of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic
writing, highlighting the political consequences of this development. J suggests
that the need to record taxes and receipts is the likely motivation to develop a
system of writing, though it is improbable that the majority of the population
ever obtained even basic literacy. The political homogeneity of the kingdom was
strengthened by the establishment of a single written language. He writes that
ancient Egypt marks the first time when ''the language and the state became
allies, as it were, mutually supporting each other'' (55).

Ancient China is another example where J establishes a connection between
political homogeneity and a common written language, and this is the focus of
Chapter 5 (59-74). Like Egypt, the writing system in China developed in an area
with a strong central authority (Beijing) that was used to create an organized
system of taxation. Even though there are numerous spoken dialects in China,
there has been a unified written language for the country since the time of the
first emperor Qin (221 B.C.), a written tradition that largely went unchanged
for several thousand years until the recent reforms of the written language this
past century (see Chapter 16). China is one of the most successful political
states in the history of civilization in part because it developed one unified
written language early in its history.

Part III: Language expansions (76-118)
This section describes three well-known examples of expansion and conquest,
comparing the linguistic and political ramifications of the expansion of Greek,
Latin and Arabic. Chapter 6 (77-90) establishes a key similarity between the
expansion of Greek and the expansion of Egyptian and Chinese. Although ancient
Greece never achieved political union like ancient China, the various states did
develop a common written language, Greek 'koiné', which was the common language
of Greek administration that was a blend of traditional dialects (86). This
koiné was the language that spread across the ever-expanding empire.

Chapter 7 (91-102) describes the expansion of Latin. J says that classical Latin
presents very little evidence of variation, partially because most of the Latin
literature was produced by a handful of men who were in very close contact with
the central authority figures of Imperial Rome. The conquered populations
abandoned their native languages and adopted Latin with almost uniform
regularity because of the efficient system of Roman government, commerce and
trade within the Empire and, most importantly, because Latin had established a
standard written language. In fact, when the Roman Empire itself was overtaken
by Germanic invasions, the conquerors adopted the Latin language of those whom
they conquered because Latin was an established written language which
facilitated commerce, taxation and other administrative duties.

To conclude this section, in Chapter 8 (103-118) J discusses the expansion of
Arabic which has maintained a relatively stable and homogenous written language
since around 750. Taking advantage of the politically weakened Persian and
Byzantine empires, the Arabs spread across vast territories, taking with them
their language and religion. In some parts of the empire, the Arabs managed to
establish their language but not their religion (e.g., the Coptic Church in
Egypt) while in other areas they established their religion but not their
language (e.g., the maintenance of the Berber languages across much of North
Africa). Although united by a common written language, the Arab world has
experienced considerable political fragmentation, which has resulted in mutually
incomprehensible spoken varieties of the language. Despite this diversity in the
spoken language, Arabic is still considered a single language for two reasons: a
unified written language, and the common belief among different populations that
they speak a single language.

Part IV: Languages and nations (119-170)
This section includes three chapters that explore the relationship between
language and nationhood. Chapter 9 (121-132) argues that linguists cannot rely
on the spoken language to decide if two languages are distinct from one another.
In fact languages may be mutually comprehensible (a Swedish speaker almost
always understands a Norwegian speaker) but most everyone agrees that they are
two separate languages. Rather, the development of separate orthographic systems
contributes to the metalinguistic awareness of two different languages. For
example, one of the important factors to consider in the fragmentation of Latin
into the separate Romance languages is the development of a unique orthography
that more faithfully reflects the sounds of the spoken language rather than
Classical Latin forms. To illustrate this point, J includes a passage from the
famous Strasbourg Oaths from 842, whose orthography illustrates how spoken Old
French ('salvarai', 'I will support') had diverged from its Classical Latin
source 'salvare habeo'.

The history of English, which emerged as a separate, identifiable language
earlier than the Romance languages, is treated in Chapter 10 (133-155). Unlike
the Roman invaders who did not establish Latin as a permanent language in
Britain (though they contributed the Latin alphabet), the Germanic invaders were
able to impose their language in some parts of Britain in a relatively short
amount of time. J summarizes the complex early history of English, and concludes
that English became established as the language of Britain because it had
developed a written form (the first English text using Latin characters rather
than runes was produced as early as 603) and there was a strong union between
language and state.

Chapter 11 (156-170) discusses the era of the nation state in Europe and the
linguistic consequences of nation building in Europe from the 11th to the 19th
century. J demonstrates that a national language is a deliberate creation of the
state which is usually based on the dialect that enjoys the most prestige
because of its association with literary output and political power. In most
countries in Europe, this prestigious variety relegated the spoken languages,
which often lack a literary tradition, to dialectal status.

Part V: Europe and the world (171-219)
The major linguistic changes of the last 500 years in the Americas resulting
from the Portuguese, Spanish and British colonial expansion are discussed in
Chapter 12 (173-184). The unifying theme of this chapter is that the languages
of the European colonizers were successfully established in the New World
because they provided a written system for administration. The relatively rapid
switch from the numerous indigenous languages of the Americas to one of the
three ''big languages'' (English, Spanish and Portuguese) in the Americas is
considered to be ''the largest linguistic change in history'' (177).

Chapter 13 (185-203) discusses the creation of new languages during the colonial
period, mostly arising from the pidginization of European languages in the West
Indies and the development of the various Creole languages of the Americas, such
as Papiamentu (spoken on the island of Curaçao). J summarizes the various
theories to explain the remarkably similar grammar of most all Creole languages
such verbal systems with less inflectional morphology.

Chapter 14 (204-219) acknowledges that languages are not intrinsically stable
and presents numerous examples of how languages disappear. One might expect that
when a 'small' language disappears speakers adopt a 'big' language, for example
speakers in East Sutherland who abandon their variety of Gaelic and switch to
English. However, J demonstrates that this is not always the case. Sometimes
speakers switch to another dialect of the 'small' language rather than a major
one, as seen in the loss of many small dialects of Papua New Guinea and the
advancement of Tok Pisin as the dominant regional language.

Part VI: Recent past, present, future (221-260)
A recent development in the history of languages is the overwhelming preference
for English in an increasingly globalized society. The factors that have
encouraged this heyday of English are discussed in Chapter 15 (223-232). Of
course English has not always held this position (consider the fates of French,
German and Russian as the preferred international language), but the expansion
of the British empire and the (current) economic dominance of the United States
are two important factors for the present state of English.

Chapter 16 (233-245) considers the role of English in China, and briefly
summarizes the language reforms of the past century in China including the
simplification of written characters, the modernization of antiquated words and
grammatical constructions, and the spread of a common spoken language. J
suggests that these linguistic reforms are ultimately tied to China's political
aspirations to be a strong, unified country.

As a conclusion (246-260), the book offers a hypothetical discussion of the
linguistic situation of the world two hundred years from now. Barring any major
political or social revolutions, J believes that most linguistic changes will be
linked to the use of writing. Languages that are not used in writing and taught
in school stand little chance of survival. Furthermore, he suggests that in two
hundred years each nation will continue to use their national language which
will increasingly be the only languages that survive, assuming the tendency of
nation states to favor one language continues.

The book's central goal is to describe the relationship between language and
society for a non-specialist audience. It is clear that J believes that the two
are so integrally related that the study of the history of a language isolated
from the sociohistorical context in which the language developed is deficient,
and J supports this with clear evidence from a number of languages and
historical periods. While this claim is not new, J synthesizes information from
different disciplines (including ethnography, religion, history and politics) to
support his fundamental claim. More importantly, J is able to make comparisons
among seemingly disparate language groups and vastly different time periods to
highlight patterns of cyclical language change. For example, he compares the
current fragmentation of spoken Arabic to the fragmentation of spoken Latin
during the Middle Ages in Europe. Another example is seen in the similar fates
of Latin in England and Arabic in Persia. Both reinforce the idea that seemingly
inevitable linguistic change can falter because of political changes.

Throughout the work J debunks several popular conceptions about language, not
unlike the work of Bauer and Trudgill (1998) but studied from a diachronic
perspective. For example he demonstrates that the modern European languages are
not more advanced than others (Khoisan languages), that highly inflectional
languages such as German are not more difficult or complex than languages that
lack inflection, and that Creole speakers are not intellectually inferior
because they do not speak a ''real'' language. Even though the work as a whole
offers compelling evidence that languages that lack a strong written tradition
seldom enjoy political or economical prestige, J does not promulgate the myth
that written languages are superior. He indicates that all languages have equal
potential, but some are simply used for different reasons. In fact, he suggests
that ''languages are like people in that not everyone can do everything'' (82).

The claims and evidence offered are balanced, and J avoids making tidy
conclusions that account for the historical development of all the languages
considered in the work. For example, J argues that large parts of the Roman
Empire adopted Latin as their first language (and abandoned their native
language) because there was a strong central government in Rome. However, in
other chapters J highlights that this is not a universal requirement for all
language expansion, noting that the Germanic languages spread without any
strong, centralized power that mirrored Rome. When J makes comparisons that seem
anachronistic (e.g., comparing the 12th-century adoption of the new written
Romance models in Europe to the 19th-century adoption of modern, written
Chinese), he notes that some aspects of the comparison may not hold.

Like J's previous published work (2002, 2004), the core sections of the book
deal with the expansion of European languages as well as Arabic and Chinese, and
it is in these chapters where J makes his strongest points. A few of the
peripheral chapters (most notably Chapter 1 ''Unwritten languages'') appear to
simply summarize various hypotheses on a topic without articulating any firm
position; however, the scope of time considered in the book (two million years
in the past to two million years in the future) is ambitious.

More importantly, J occasionally simplifies a topic and omits relevant details.
One example is the abandonment of the indigenous languages of the Americas
during the colonial expansion of Spain and Portugal in the Americas. J argues
that the indigenous languages were abandoned as native populations sought access
to administrative and cultural centers. Some important details of this massive
language shift are missing from this account, such as the establishment of a
written, indigenous language in Brazil (Tupi) after the arrival of the
Portuguese (Teyssier 1982) or the incredible (oftentimes forced) pressure on
speakers of native languages to switch to the dominant language. Additionally,
although J sees the orthography documented in the Strasbourg Oaths of 842 as
evidence of the emergence of Old French, he omits important details about the
monastic and liturgical reforms of Carolingian France that motivated the
orthographic changes (Wright 1982). Admittedly, it is impossible to include all
the relevant details in an introductory text, and the omissions do not detract
from the main arguments presented.

Those who are familiar with J's 2002 publication will find several chapters of
that work reproduced in the present book. Though several chapters have been
added and other ideas refined or reworked, much of the core material (and
bibliography) remains the same. Yet the pedagogical value of the textbook format
is enhanced by its organization into short sections and succinct summaries
provided at the end of each chapter. Additionally, short review questions and a
list of thought-provoking discussion topics and possible research topics appear
at the end of each part of the book. Even though there are a few authentic,
textual examples interspersed throughout the book, more would be useful.

In sum, this textbook reinforces the idea that the study of language is linked
to the study of history and society. It is appropriate for an introductory
course in historical linguistics (though supplemental readings in historical
phonology and morphology would need to be included in the syllabus), and it will
give the student a solid overview of how societal changes effect language, as
well as spark interest in a wide variety of topics such as language policy,
language contact and language shift.

Bauer, Laurie and Peter Trudgill, eds. 1998. Language Myths. New York: Penguin

Janson, Tore. 2002. Speak: A Short History of Languages. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Janson, Tore. 2004. A Natural History of Latin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teyssier, Paul. 1982. História da língua portuguesa. Lisboa: Sa da Costa.

Wright, Roger. 1982. Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian
France. Liverpool: Cairns.

Jason Doroga is a doctoral candidate in Hispano-Romance Philology and Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current research focuses on the grammaticalization of the past participle in compound tenses in Spanish and Portuguese. He also studies the morphology of participles in Spanish periphrastic passive constructions.

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