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Reviewed by:
  • Language change by Joan Bybee
  • Betty S. Phillips
Language change. By Joan Bybee. (Cambridge textbooks in linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xviii, 292. ISBN 9781107655829. $29.99.

In Language change, Bybee has created a book differing from earlier books on historical linguistics in its focus on how all languages at all stages are susceptible to change, following cognitive mechanisms operating in the process of language use. In a clear, direct style aimed at a student audience with a basic but solid background in linguistics, she takes particular interest in topics such as causes of change, directionality, grammaticalization, lexical diffusion, morphosyntactic constructions, and change in progress. Most examples are drawn from Germanic or Romance languages (often English and Spanish), but many are also provided from less familiar languages.

Following a brief introductory chapter, Chs. 2–4 are devoted to sound change, presented at a depth that requires students to have a firm command of phonological terms and concepts. In line with B’s usage-based approach, assimilations and reductions are attributed to the ‘highly practiced neuromotor activity’ of sequences of articulatory gestures, constrained by communication goals, including social identification (38). One hallmark of B’s presentation is that she does not avoid points still under debate. For example, she defines sound change as ‘a change in the pronunciation of a segment within a word … conditioned by the phonetic environment’, adding that it is ‘typically regular’, explaining later that ‘regular’ does not mean that all words are affected simultaneously nor that sound changes are abrupt either phonetically or in their spread through the community (15–16). B then devotes a section to the topic of lexical diffusion, taking the view that ‘all sound changes have to diffuse through the lexicon in some way or another, gradually or abruptly, reaching completion or not’ (39), carefully distinguishing her stance from Labov’s (1981) distinction between ‘regular’ sound changes and lexically diffused ones. She provides examples of the most frequent words undergoing a sound change first, adding that combinations with other words might also serve as a conditioning environment and noting that the frequency of a word in such an environment might be the determining factor in how quickly a word undergoes a change. She ends that section with an acknowledgment that sometimes certain word classes change before others, and, in changes not based on automation of production, the least frequent words can change first (41). The chapter ends with discussions of fortition, insertion, and causes of sound change, including why children are unlikely to be the source of sound change.

In Ch. 3, B expands the scope of sound change to include not only consequences of regular sound changes, such as splits and mergers, but also chain shifts and tone and prosodic changes, as well as dissimilation, metathesis, and changes in phonotactic patterns. Again, articulatory and usage motivations are emphasized. For example, phonologization of nasal vowels is said to begin with phonetic tendencies to overextend articulatory effects (49). The mental reanalysis becomes secondary, with a distinction being drawn between phonologization and phonemicization. Similarly, the exaggerated vowel lengthening that occurs in English before voiced consonants is described as phonologized, even though it is not phonemic (50). A section on ‘Changes in phoneme inventories’ is followed by one on ‘Vowel shifts’, which includes discussions of the Great Vowel Shift and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, with attention to the role of perceptual distance in pull chains and drag chains, as well as studies in real and apparent time, ending with general principles of vowel shifts, including lexical effects. A discussion of the origin and evolution of stress accent and of tonal systems is followed by a section on dissimilation, metathesis, and phonotactically motivated change. A final section emphasizes the shared characteristics of causes of sound change.

Ch. 4 discusses the interaction of sound change with morphology, based on the unidirectional tendency for phonetically motivated differences in sounds to become associated with meaning, leading to morphologization (76). Examples range from Maori passives to German umlaut plurals to French liaison. Rule inversion and rule telescoping are also discussed before B returns to a [End Page 724] discussion of the Neogrammarian hypothesis and...


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