The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No.3, September 2002

Historical Linguistics.
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 meme chose").

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 of Schendl).

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 living relatives

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):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Albert K. Wimmer, Associate Professor of German language and literature at the University of Notre Dame, Fellow of the Medieval Institute, Fellow of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Graduate Studies. Ph.D., Indiana University, 1975. A recipient of the Kaneb Teaching Award, he specializes in Medieval German Literature, the German Short Story, Business German and Translation.