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  • The transmission of Anglo-Norman: Language history and language acquisition by Richard Ingham
  • David W. Lightfoot
The transmission of Anglo-Norman: Language history and language acquisition. By Richard Ingham. (Language faculty and beyond: Internal and external variation in linguistics 9.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2012. Pp. xi, 179. ISBN 9789027208262. $149 (Hb).

In the early days of generative grammar, grammars were seen as properties of languages, generating the sentences of Chinese or Chichewa, and speaker/listeners were idealized as products of homogeneous speech communities, knowing their language perfectly. Chomsky (1986) abandoned [End Page 963] socially defined languages and idealized speaker/listeners, and distinguished individual, internal, intensional I-languages—represented in individual brains—and external E-language—a mass, amorphous notion of language out in the world, part of a child’s experience, triggering the development of I-languages. This raised the possibility of billions of grammars. A little later, Kroch (1989) sketched the possibility of individuals operating with multiple coexisting I-languages, raising the possibility of more billions of grammars. This individualization, taking up ideas from nineteenth-century philologists, had a galvanizing effect on work in diachronic syntax, enabling analysts to explain the emergence of new systems through the methods of language acquisition (without invoking historicist notions of what can change into what) and to deal with the spread of new systems through the methods of population biology (Lightfoot 2006:163–66).

Under this approach, children are exposed to E-language, and, as a result, an I-language or a set of I-languages grows in the child. If another child is exposed to somewhat different E-language, a different I-language may emerge. Sometimes diachronic syntacticians taking this perspective have been able to show which aspects of E-language trigger which elements of I-languages (Lightfoot 2013). New I-languages emerge if and only if children are exposed to different E-language, and nothing is ‘transmitted’ at all directly. E-language results from whatever I-languages are used in the child’s environment, modulated by factors of language use, and no two children are exposed to the same E-language. Sometimes the differences have no noticeable effect on the emerging I-languages, and sometimes minor E-language differences trigger different structures. So E-language is not transmitted, nor are I-languages, and neither is directly observable.

So what to make of Richard Ingham’s book on the transmission of Anglo-Norman? RI takes Anglo-Norman (A-N) to be the variety of French used in the British Isles from the Norman Conquest until around 1430. Initial exposure typically took place ‘in middle childhood … around age 5’ (4) and resulted from what RI (without much evidence) takes to have been a school immersion program. Virtually all those who used it were bilingual and acquired the Romance language quite independently of the Germanic properties of the Middle English mother tongue, and at a different age. Users of A-N left a rich written record extending over a substantial period, allowing us to study its evolution over generations, comparing its development with medieval French.

RI is well aware that neither E-language nor I-languages are transmitted. Indeed, he opens his book with Kiparsky’s famous observation that ‘a language is not some gradually and imperceptibly changing object which smoothly floats through time and space’ but ‘the transmission of language is discontinuous, and a language is recreated by each child on the basis of the speech data it hears’ (1968:175; note that the source listed in the book’s references is incorrect; the correct reference is given below). Rather, RI takes transmission pretheoretically, referring to ‘the naturalistic process of acquiring the system properties of a language from the linguistic environment on the basis of some innate endowment’, asking ‘whether the linguistic phenomena of A-N can be understood in terms of this conceptual framework, located as it is at the convergence of recent lines of enquiry into language change and language acquisition’ (7).

Herein lies the success of the book. It is not so much that the writings of medieval, bilingual clerks can reveal things about the human language faculty that we cannot learn elsewhere, but rather that...


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