- Cyclical change continued ed. by Elly van Gelderen
A central objective of diachronic linguistics consists in identifying basic regularities of language change, in order to contribute to a deeper understanding of language and human cognition. One particularly systematic type of change that lends itself to this kind of investigation is linguistic cycles, that is, instances of recurrent directional, stepwise change and renewal of linguistic markers, found repeatedly within one language but also across languages.
The concept of linguistic cycles (or spirals), already explicit in von der Gabelentz 1901 and Meillet 1912, has proven very fruitful in recent years, with the renewed interest in the history of negation and jespersen’s cycle (Willis et al. 2013, among others), and also in a number of other linguistic areas. Evidence of this is the volume Cyclical change continued, which contains a dozen papers based on the 2014 workshop Linguistic Cycles II at Arizona State University. Elly van Gelderen has refined our understanding of cycles, not least by relating it to her theory of feature economy (van Gelderen 2004). Cyclical change continued forms a perfect companion to van Gelderen 2009 and 2011. While the latter gives a systematic overview of known cycles in various areas of morphosyntax, expanding the analysis within the framework of minimalist generative syntax, the former collects a number of in-depth empirical studies, as does this volume. Some of the topics overlap with the 2009 volume, but the empirical coverage is extended to further languages and new cycles are discussed as compared to the previous collection (e.g. distributive, reflexive, and future cycles).
The first part, entitled ‘Characteristics of cycles’, is opened by Elly van Gelderen’s ‘Cyclical change continued: Introduction’, characterizing the scientific background of the concept of linguistic cycles. The special emphasis is on the distinction between microcycles (in subparts of grammar) and macrocycles, that is, cycles in language type from synthetic to analytic and back (Hodge 1970)—a problematic concept not least because of the fuzziness of the terms ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’. Putting the contributions into a wider context, van Gelderen identifies overarching questions about cycles, including typical steps, sources, and influencing factors.
In ‘What cycles when and why?’, Marianne Mithun scrutinizes the Iroquoian languages of North America for instances of cyclical change, identifying reflexive, determiner/DP, distributive, pronominal, and negative cycles driven by weakening and subsequent renewal of pragmatic force, and a locative cycle primarily driven by language contact.
The second part of the volume, ‘Macro-cycles’, is devoted to the above-mentioned synthetic-analytic cycles. In ‘Is radical analyticity normal? Implications of Niger-Congo and Southeast Asia for typology and diachronic theory’, John McWhorter argues that the near-total lack of [End Page 488] inflectional morphology in the respective languages represents a diachronic anomaly that, contra Hodge (1970), cannot be attributed to some grammar-internal synthetic-analytic cycle, but can only be explained as the result of interrupted language transmission, due to widespread L2 acquisition, which is evidenced by crucial parallels to pidginization/creolization and a layered areal distribution of analyticity.
Benedikt Szmrecsanyi is less critical of the notion of a synthetic-analytic macrocycle. He describes ‘An analytic-synthetic spiral in the history of English’ on the basis of an aggregative measure of analyticity/syntheticity as the ratios of function/inflected words in texts. While analyticity increased until late Early Modern English, the language subsequently ‘spiraled back’: twentieth-century texts are comparable to twelfth-/thirteenth-century texts in this respect. One might wonder whether all parameters used are equally indicative of analyticity (e.g. ratio of complementizers) and—especially in the light of the previous chapter—what triggers this cycle.
‘The interaction between the French subject and object cycles’ is investigated in the ensuing paper by Mariana Bahtchevanova and Elly van Gelderen. The subject agreement cycle, well known for first/second-person singular in Colloquial French, is shown to hold also for third person and plural, displaying different stages within the cycle...