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Review of  Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9-13 August 1999

Reviewer: Margaret J-M Sonmez
Book Title: Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9-13 August 1999
Book Author: Laurel J. Brinton
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.309

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Brinton, Laurel J., ed. (2001) Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected
Papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics,
Vancouver. John Benjamins Publishing Company, xii+389pp, hardback ISBN
1-58811-064-8 (US), 90-272-3722-0 (Eur), USD 105.00, EUR 115,00, Current
Issues in Linguistic Theory 215.

Margaret J-M Sonmez, Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

The publisher's announcement of this book, listing all 23 papers
presented, is at

The papers are all written for a readership of academics familiar with
the main issues in historical linguistics. The selection of papers was
"intended to display the state of current research in the field of
historical linguistics" (xi) and therefore covers a wide range of
disparate subjects and approaches. There is no easy way to describe how
they go together. The issue of cohesiveness in this volume is, in fact,
closely connected with the main points that will be made elsewhere in
this review and will not, therefore, be discussed further in this
introductory section.

Evaluation of a selection of papers with such disparate subject matters
and theoretical implications can hardly be presented in a simple thematic
order, nor do I feel able to present evaluative comments concerning each
paper, knowing as little as I do about some of the subjects. In order to
treat the book as a whole, and with these limitations in mind, I have
chosen to go over the material mostly from the point of view of the
reader. Firstly the issue of ordering and cohesiveness will be
addressed, I will then 'look through' one of the papers at the rest of
the book. Although some of the linguistic issues found in the papers are
mentioned in the course of these discussions, I have not taken it upon
myself to make any detailed evaluation of the linguistics that is being
practiced in individual papers; the standards are beyond that.

In advance, I ask forgiveness of the authors for the unequal treatment of
papers that this approach will result in.

Brinton has done a splendid job in selecting such papers. The
scholarship represented here is uniformly excellent, as one would expect
from the writers. This, then, is the first cohesive factor. It provides
the reader with an increasing sense of confidence in what one reads which
is, of course, especially important when working through research on
topics with which one is unfamiliar. In addition, their quality makes
the reading of these papers a pleasure.

The ordering is alphabetical, by writer's surname. This leads to a
random sequencing of subject matters, which in turn adds to the effect
that the book has of providing a wide-ranging survey. Volumes of this
nature are not usually read from cover to cover in one sitting, so the
somewhat difficult business of concentrating on very different languages,
times, methodologies and issues in quick succession is not the lot of the
general user, and the lack of any sort of thematic grouping of the papers
should not be seen as a criticism.

It is in fact hard to see how the editor could have successfully grouped
or ordered the papers in any other way. Given that the papers will -
anyway - mostly be read in isolation, an alphabetical order does indeed
seem to be the best solution for such a mixed selection of work. Had the
book been divided in sections according to language family, more than
half of it (15 papers) would have been taken up with works dealing with
the Indo European families -a somewhat clumsy arrangement, happily
avoided. Readers in need of such a categorisation can easily find papers
relating to specific languages by using the Index of Languages and
Language Families (371-375).

The major sub-fields of linguistics which in other works can provide a
way of grouping papers, are unusable in this selection because many of
the papers exhibit an integrationist approach, in which evidence from
different areas of linguistic analysis is combined where required by the
materials and research questions. As a result there are papers dealing
with syntax and semantics (Akimoto, Rosenbach), syntax and phonology
(Bentley & Eythorsson), phonology and morphology (Bubenik, Tuten),
morphology and the lexicon (Dakin), phonology and the lexicon (Cho), and
semantics and phonology (Nichols), as well as others that refer mainly
to a single area of linguistic inquiry. There are also two papers that
look at historical linguistics and its data from a different angle
altogether: Tarpent's overview of the discipline of historical
linguistics and Tuten's discussion of koineization.

There are, of course, a number of other things connecting the papers, but
none is both specific enough and frequently enough found to become a
criterion of categorisation. Optimality Theory, for instance, is found
useful in a couple of papers (Cho, Denison), and the concept of gradience
which is investigated in some detail by Denison, is also referred to by
Mithun as a characteristic of lexicalization (251).

While there is no single theme or argument running through the papers or
even through a group of the papers, the reader does not experience the
book as a sequence of totally unrelated papers. Fortuitous though it may
be, it is possible to find links between adjacent papers in some cases.
These links are internal to the papers, of very differing types and
sometimes quite elusive. I will attempt to draw out some of them as a
way to present a few details about the content of some of the papers.

Let us look, for instance, at Cho's and Dakin's papers (89-104 and
105-117 respectively). Cho adopts Ito & Mester's (1995) "core/periphery
organization" of the lexicon (90) and shows how Optimality Theory can
provide an insightful approach to the lexical constraints operating on
some Korean phonological processes. The paper illustrates how important
a historical understanding is in lexical analysis, however synchronic the
analysis claims to be. This fine paper is followed by Dakin's work on
mesoamerican linguistic prehistory. This begins with a quotation from
Lass (1997: 190) that could equally well be an epigraph for the previous
paper, because both papers deal with loanwords. The quotation ends "how
do we go about sorting the native from the borrowed (and describing, if
necessary, a stratification of borrowing) in particular histories?". The
first part of the question, "sorting the native from the borrowed", is
what Dakin's paper attempts; Cho was dealing with "a stratification of
borrowing". Where Cho uses existing knowledge of the sources of the loan
words used as data, Dakin investigates the direction of borrowing in her
materials by analyzing the lexical/morphological structures of the
languages involved.

Another pair of neighbouring papers with links beyond the merely
alphabetical is that of Gess and Hansson (145-156 and 157-173), which
both deal with phonological issues. In his discussion concerning whether
or not vowel length was distinctive at different periods of French, and
what its relations to loss of /s/ were, Gess argues that vowel length was
not distinctive in OF and thus rejects compensatory lengthening as a
motivation for phonological change, reinterpreting the data as a case of
mora-conservation coming from "two fundamental aspects of Optimality
Theory: faithfulness and the principle of minimal violation" (153).
Length is heavily implicated in Hansson's data, too. He looks
at preaspiration before voiceless stops. This, in my understanding,
is phonetically a matter of timing, whether phonologically distinctive or
not (Hansson suggests that in some cases it has become phonologized
through its effects on subsequent phonological processes -163), and
whatever its origins (which, in the cases under investigation, remain
obscure -169). This paper convincingly argues that modern preaspiration
in parts of North Western Europe represents the remnants of late Proto
Scandinavian preaspiration, most probably spread through contact with
Scandinavian at the time of the Vikings (157-8, 171).

There is a link to be found, too, between Nichols's paper (253-276) and
Rosenbach's (277-293), in their investigations of the elusive areas of
"phonosymbolism" (Nichols) and "Iconically/psychologically-driven
language change". (Rosenbach, 277). Both deal with the interface between
the 'etic' level of language and little-understood issues of what may be
called 'pre-emic' motivations. Whereas Nichols studies possible
universals concerning the inclusion of certain classes of sound in
personal pronouns, Rosenbach looks at co-occurrences between the semantic
features of possessors ([animate][topical][prototypical]) and the type of
possessive marker used in English (-s or of-genitive).

Conveniently enough, the two papers which deal with more general
linguistic topics and in which detailed data is irrelevant or takes a
second place are found together near the end of the book. These are
Tarpent's survey of the recent past and near future of historical
linguistics (308-325) and Tuten's discussion and useful reformulation
of a model of koineization (325 -336)

Tarpent's comments concerning historical linguistics in recent times may
serve as a useful way of looking over the book as a whole, at the same
time giving me the opportunity to provide information about papers that
have not been discussed so far.

For Tarpent, reconstruction is the ultimate step in the practice of
historical linguistics (319), and she observes that present weaknesses in
the discipline are mainly due to insufficient understanding and mastery
of the principles and practice of reconstruction (315). She presents
three challenges to current research, and acknowledges three areas of
current study that are and will continue to be useful to historical
linguistics as it develops in the twenty-first century. Not all of these
six items are represented in the book; in fact the challenges are rarely
taken up by the studies here presented. There is a tendency for most of
the papers in the book to fall into one of her 'current research'

Tarpent's three challenges are (1) identification of non-obvious language
groupings, (2) to work towards the goal of reconstructing "a third order"
of (proto-proto-) languages " ... and even higher" and (3) to emphasize
a "genuinely scientific (not merely technical) attitude", to include a
questioning approach and open-mindedness, combined with rigorous
methodology (317).

None of the papers in this book are overtly concerned with the second of
these challenges, and the extent to which Vennemann's paper (on Semitic
influences on English through Gaelic) is involved in the first depends on
whether one interprets the challenge as operating on the level of
postulated proto-proto-languages or as including links between languages
of different proto-language groupings. As for the third challenge, again
-it depends. It depends on just what Tarpent means by "open minded".
No papers here involve Nostratic arguments, but a number of them lead up
to a questioning of the models of language that are used in historical
linguistics. I have already mentioned the introduction of gradience into
a couple of papers, and the presentation of a refined model of
koineization. The previously unmentioned paper by Aski also belongs
here. This investigates the change from Latin /tj/ and /kj/ into Modern
Italian /ts/ and /t$/ ($ = alveopalatal voiceless fricative), questioning
dominant models of change and introducing a new three-phase model.

The three "directions which are currently being explored [and] will
probably remain useful" (320) to the Historical Linguistics paradigm as
it develops in the coming century are: "general principles of language
organization and change", "an expanded comparative base" and "more
work . . .at the level between the 'inspectionally obvious' and the
global" (ibid.).

Most of the papers in the book under review fit into the first of these
categories, which is defined as comprising work on typology, universals,
grammaticalization, work on language contact and transfer, and work on
social variation. From those that have not yet been mentioned we may
note that Akimoto's , Hoeksama's, Manolin's, Martin's and Mithun's papers
belong here as studies relating to lexicalization and grammaticalization.

Tarpent herself singles out Nichols' "global approach" as her example of
work on an expanded comparative base (the second item), and Vennemann's
paper must belong here, too. As for the last of these directions, Here
Tarpent emphasises the "pressing need to pay attention to morphology when
investigating proposed relationships" (320). Vennemann obliges again, as
do Anderson and Zide with their careful reconstruction of morphological
features of the Proto-Munda language, with links to many other language
groupings. Stump's work also belongs here: his study of inflectional
classes in Vedic, Epic Sanskrit and Pali leads to a claim for the
universality (or, at least, a general tendency) of languages to prefer
"declensional systems in which a nominal's membership in a particular
declension class is both a necessary and a sufficient correlate of its
membership in a particular gender class" (303-304).

I learned a lot from the papers in this volume, and came away from it
with the strong feeling that there is no need for anyone to be gloomy
about the future of historical linguistics. If most of the papers belong
to the less universal and paradigm-changing area of research it is not, I
would suggest, that such thought is not to be found, but that they are
based upon conference papers which confine the writers to issues that can
be reported and explained within a few pages. Like the discipline of
history itself, it seems to me (in my very humble opinion) that
historical linguistics is in the middle of a data-gathering and
analysis phase, in which new methods and materials have been explored and
the theoretical implications of the results are as yet found only in
scattered publications. The time for a paradigm-shifting publication may
be near at hand.

Lass, Roger (1997) Historical Linguistics and Language Change. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

I am a 'socio-historical' linguist whose research mostly revolves around
seventeenth century English data. I am particularly interested in
perceptions of language variation and change.