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Reviewed by:
  • Cycles in language change ed. by Miriam Bouzouita et al.
  • David W. Lightfoot
Cycles in language change. Ed. by Miriam Bouzouita, Anne Breitbarth, Lieven Danckaert, and Elisabeth Witzenhausen. ( Oxford studies in diachronic and historical linguistics.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xix, 306. ISBN 9780198824961. $85 (Hb).

As is clear from the curriculum of almost any linguistics department in modern US universities, there are now many questions that researchers might ask about language: how it is acquired by children, how it is exploited by poets, how it varies sociologically, how it is used for communication purposes, how Spanish is best learned by English-speaking adults, and so on. The central research question for the second half of the nineteenth century, as the discipline was getting established in Europe and the US, was quite simply: How did the language under investigation get to be the way it is? As far as Hermann Paul was concerned, this was the only possible question: 'it has been objected that there is another view of language possible besides the historical. I must contradict this' (1891:xlvi). Whether other views of language were possible or not, this historical question first became central in Germany, and it grew not only out of Sir William Jones's insight about the historical relatedness of languages but also from a general intellectual movement of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century that we refer to today as 'Romanticism'.

As the nineteenth century progressed, linguists formulated historical 'laws' with ever greater precision. They studied the similarities among cognate words, words derived from the same historical source; this was the basis for establishing historical relationships, and then for establishing the sound changes that derived one form from another historically. In due course, this yielded what we now call Grimm's law; later Grassmann's law, Verner's law, and other diachronic 'laws' took care of the many exceptions to Grimm's correlations (see Lightfoot 1999:Ch. 2 and Davies 1998:Ch. 4).

The year 1876 brought a lot of productive work and is often referred to as the annus mirabilis of the nineteenth century (e.g. Hoenigswald 1978). The idea that sound change was regular and systematic was formulated in 1878 in the preface to Osthoff and Brugmann's Morphologische Untersuchungen, and the people who held the idea of exceptionless regularity were referred to as the Junggrammatiker, the 'neo-grammarians'.

The nineteenth-century work on the Germanic consonant shift illustrates a more general point, which affected other new disciplines that were beginning to emerge at the same time. The field of linguistics first identified itself by claiming that language history was law-governed, even if the notion of 'law' was scarcely that of Boyle's law or gravity, which are timeless. The term referred to specific sound changes or 'correspondences' affecting specific languages at specific times. One could formulate precise correspondences of the form 'ab in some phonetically definable context', where a and b were sounds in corresponding words at two stages of history. The input was the inventory of words in some language (attested or reconstructed), and the output was the inventory of corresponding words at some later stage. Sound a became something else, b, systematically. In any event, languages were supposed to change in systematic ways, and historical linguists, perhaps more than other kinds of linguists, have always been concerned with issues of explanation.

There was a similar focus on historical processes in what we now call evolutionary biology, following the work of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, and many others studying changes in species, and what we call political science, following the historical work of Karl Marx, who studied the development of monarchies into feudal and then into mercantile societies. Evolutionary biologists, political scientists, and linguists focused on what were seen as historical processes and the nature of change—why change is sometimes catastrophic and sometimes gradual, for example. [End Page 409]

The question then arises as to what kind of explanation could be offered for changes of this type in different disciplines. Late-nineteenth-century linguists explored the nature of sounds (through the emerging field of phonetics), hoping...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 409-414
Launched on MUSE
2021-06-17
Open Access
No
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