The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No.3, September 2002
Herbert Schendl. Oxford Introductions to Language Study.
Ed. by H. G. Widdowson.
Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
xi + 130pp
ISBN 0 194372383
US : $24.00
Reviewed by Albert K. Wimmer
University of Notre Dame
In its press release, Oxford University
Press states that "this book provides an accessible
introduction to anyone interested in the history of the
English language." As the title suggests, the book
deals with "the major issues and terminology used in
the field of Historical Linguistics." However, after
having read the book, the reader will conclude that, at
lest based on the contents of this volume, the series may
consist of "brief surveys intended for readers new
to the formal study of language," however, it takes
a bit more than linguistic 'innocence' to work one's way
through the terminology.
Schendl follows closely the other volumes
in the Oxford Introductions to Language Study Series both
in size and structure (survey, readings, references, glossary).
He begins his survey with a seeming truism: "All physical
aspects of the universe and all aspects of human life are
subject to change, and languages are no exception"
(p.3). In the following seven chapters (Reconstructing the
Past: Data and Evidence; Vocabulary Change; Grammatical
Change; Sound Change; Language Contact; How and Why Do Languages
Change?; Postscript: Further Developments) he proceeds to
flesh out details of the "universal fact" of linguistic
change. He briefly touches the merits of synchronic and
diachronic, i.e. historical linguistics, emphasizing the
significance of including the latter in the observation
of the language process, particularly since it sheds light
on "what is common across all (or most) other languages"
(p. 9); 'other', of course, meaning 'other than English.'
The second chapter, dealing with issues
of linguistic reconstruction, is probably Schendl's most
informative and fascinating to linguistic ingénues.
However, when he talks about the beginnings of human language,
it would have been appropriate to allude specifically to
the evidence forwarded by human (forensic?) archeologists
who attribute human speech to the presence of the hyoid
bone and the position of the larynx ('basicranial flexion')
in Neanderthals. Furthermore, in his discussion of the concept
of the family tree model for languages (p. 16), Schendl
might have briefly mentioned the Nostratic hypothesis. In
chapter 3, on vocabulary change, Schendl missed an opportunity
to dwell on the fun Mark Twain had with polysemy in German,
instead of providing a fairly modest example from OE (lætan/lettan).
It is interesting to note that throughout
the book Schendl follows a decidedly British English path.
This is illustrated for instance on p. 64 where he entirely
omits American Indian languages in both South and North
America when speaking of languages endangered by the prevalence
of English. In light of this emphasis, the author of this
highly compact and useful overview of historical linguistics
might have seized on the opportunity to elaborate on the
linguistic fall-out of Duke William the Conqueror's victory
at Hastings (1066) instead of summarily referring to it
as the Norman Conquest (pp. 26, 64) without providing examples
for the linguistic component of the invasion. Would this
not have been the place for introducing anecdotal illustrations
for the "70 per cent of modern English" loan words
attributable to French (p. 26).
Schendl's most instructive chapter is the
one entitled "How and Why Do Languages Change?"
Among the reasons for linguistic change, he cites the popular
theories involving geography, climate, ethnic internal anatomy,
and general attitudes regarding correctness both in terms
of proper pronunciation and lexical content (p. 67). He
then proceeds to explain the three forms of linguistic change
worth scientific scrutiny:
functional (affecting sounds) and grammatical
changes, psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic changes,
such as "social class" affiliation and "formality"
of a situation (p. 73).
In the section on "the origin and spread
of changes," Schendl makes the reader ponder the issues
of constraints, actuation and implementation. In conjunction
with a discussion of the latter, he points out the Old English
parallel forms of acsian/ascian. Because of his emphasis
on British English, Schendl missed an opportunity here to
point out that a similar transposition of consonants exists
among speakers of Black American English who use aksed in
their own community for reasons having to do with Black
identity and generally code-switch to asked otherwise. The
dropping of [j] ('yod-dropping') in certain words (pp. 78f.)
could have provided an opportunity to point out that the
familiar suppression of /j/ by German speakers of English,
which frequently gives away Germans as non-native speakers,
in addition to the many other miscues of which German speakers
of English are guilty.
Why do languages change? Schendl admits
that "there is still no generally accepted answer"
(p.80), but quips at the end of the chapter that "languages
which have no speakers do not change." Aside from that,
he points out that language can be "consciously changed,
by official institutions, or influential pressure groups"
(p. 83) in the name of standardization (e.g. by 'language
academies' or 'prestigious individuals') or political correctness
(e.g. generic references to both sexes: use of plural, his
or her, she used by women writers - which is simply a case
of "out with the old, in with the new", or the
old, French proverb "Plus ça change, plus le
An appendix of readings for each chapter
not only introduces the core of the pertinent research on
each individual chapter but also challenges the reader with
provocative follow-up questions. The book concludes with
a graded bibliography for readers who wish to deepen their
knowledge and gain an appreciation for current research
on the issues discussed by Schendl, and a glossary which,
however, fails to include several linguistic terms not commonly
familiar to the casual reader (constructional iconicity,
memes, majority principle, polysemy, topicalization, etc.).
In sum, Schendl's volume goes beyond a general
survey of historical linguistics. Indeed, it provides readers
ranging from advanced undergraduates to graduate students
of linguistics with a permanent set of tools and reference
with which to approach language change. Especially, students
interested in second language acquisition will appreciate
the circumcinct way in which Schendl places the study of
linguistics within historical contexts.
1. "Professor Schendl
studied English and French at the University of Vienna and
General Phonetics at the Sorbonne. He holds a Ph.D. in English
Linguistics from the University of Vienna. Professor Schendl
is Professor of English Linguistics at the University of
Vienna, Austria. His research areas include English historical
linguistics, especially Old English syntax, semantics, and
phonology, Middle English lexicology, historical code-switching
and Early Modern English morphology." (OUP biography
2. Nostratic: Sifting the
Evidence, ed. by Brian Joseph and Joseph Salmons. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins. 1998, 293pp.
3. Marc Twain, in "The
Awful German Language", lists 28 meanings for German
'Zug' and 20 for 'Schlag', missing the Austrian meaning
'whipped cream.' An even more poignant example for "superordinate"
versus "subordinate" semantic change (p. 33) would
have been English 'deer'/German 'Tier.' When mentioning
taboos, (p. 33), perhaps the opposite example would be the
tradition among Ashkenazim Jews who do not name babies after
4. Cf. the examples listed
in Eric Atwell, "A Corpus of German and Italian English
Language Learners' (Mis)pronunciations for Project ISLE:
Interactive Spoken Language Education.," for instance
for stress level ('report), vowels ('produce /oh/), and
consonants (the /d/; biscuit /w/). (http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/eric/icame2001.htm):