Sunday, September 21, 2014

Historical Linguistics by Lyle Campbell

Like many of you translators, I’m a language nerd, and I like learning more about languages – both specific tongues and also languages and linguistics in general. So I enjoyed Historical Linguistics by Lyle Campbell; it’s a textbook, really, and you wouldn’t want to read it before bed, but it is a fun and interesting book to dip into.

Campbell writes on the first page: ”A number of historical linguistics textbooks exist, but this one is different. Most others talk about historical linguistics; they may illustrate concepts and describe methods, and perhaps discuss theoretical issues, but they do not focus on how to do historical linguistics.” (p. xv) In other words, the book is quite practical and it’s an introduction to historical linguistics. It has more than 500 pages about topics including sound change, linguistic reconstruction, lexical change, language contact, quantitative approaches (for example, “glottochronology”), and more, with examples from loads of different languages, including some I’d never heard of before, such as Mednyj Aleut, Karuk, Cholti, and Uto-aztecan.

If you are interested in how language changes and develops over time, you know that sound change is a big part of this. Campbell talks about different ways for this to happen, such as syncope (“The loss (deletion) of a vowel from the interior of a word”, p. 28), or anaptyxis (“a kind of epenethsis in which an extra vowel is inserted between two consonants”, p. 30), or haplology (“in which a repeated sequence of sounds is simplified to a single occurrence,” such as how some people pronounce “library” as “libry”, p. 34). Campbell then shows how we can see which changes have taken place and when. “In the history of Swedish, the change of umlaut took place before syncope...From Proto-Germanic to Modern Swedish: *gasti-z > Proto-Scandinavian *gastiz > gestir > Old Norse gestr > Modern Swedish gäst...We can be reasonably certain that these changes took place in this chronological order, since if syncope had taken place first (gastir > gastr), then there would have been no remaining i to condition the umlaut and the form would have come out as the non-existent X gast.” (p. 39)

In another chapter, he discusses different models, such as family trees (“the traditional model of language diversification” which ”attempts to show how languages diversify and how language families are classified”, p. 187) and dialectology (which “deals with regional variation in a language”, p. 190), or sociolinguistics (which “deals with systematic co-variation of linguistic structure with social structure, especially with the variation in language which is conditioned by social differences”, p. 193). In still other chapters, he discusses Pidgins and Creoles, endangered languages, how children speak (“mamma” or “baba”, p. 354), and writing. Campbell claims that you can reconstruct a language that doesn’t have a written form (p. 396), but, as he puts it, it is often “a matter of luck, a matter of what happens to show up in the sources” and sometimes you have to make guesses (p. 398). But obviously spelling and pronunciation can help in reconstructing the history of a tongue. For example, in English, there are words such as “marcy/mercy ‘mercy’, sarten/certein ‘certain’, parson/persoun ‘person’, and so on..that /er/ changed to /ar/ in the pronunciation of the writer of these forms. (This change was fairly general, though sociolinguistically conditioned, and it was ultimately reversed, but left such doublets in English as clerk/clark, person/parson, vermin/varmint, and university/varsity.)” (p. 398)

Every chapter also has exercises, in case you want to try your hand at what you’re learning.

This isn’t an easy-to-read book, but it is a good one for learning a little (or a lot!) more about linguistics.


Mike said...

Actually, it kind of sounds like a book I WOULD read before bed. :) I am especially interested by the language family trees - which is why I loved World of Words, by Victor Stevenson. I wish I could find more books like that. I haven't seen too many that get in to the family trees, and the history of specifically related languages as they move away from each other into new, distinct languages. How is the section on family trees in this book? Pretty in depth?

Iowa Voice

B.J. Epstein said...

Alas, I wouldn't say it was in-depth, really. It is a fairly short section, so since you seem to know quite a bit about it, I suspect a different book might be better for you.

Best wishes,