Investigations in sociohistorical linguistics

Investigations in sociohistorical linguistics: Colonisation and contact. By Peter Trudgill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp, xiv, 218. ISBN 9780521132930. $29.99.

Reviewed by Sam Zukoff, University of Georgia

This book chronicles some of the most vexed and interesting questions in the history of English, both in its origins in the British Isles and in its subsequent worldwide expansion in the Age of Colonization. Ch. 1 addresses the loss of Old English inflection into Middle English through the lens of language contact. T concludes that this simplification was due to contact with Brittonic (Celtic), not Old Norse as is commonly believed. T makes a brilliant distinction to unify the opposing views of historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, namely that contact-induced complexity is the result of child language-learning abilities, but contact-induced simplification is the result of adult imperfect learning (17–23).

Ch. 2 investigates the unique lack of third singular present -s­ marking in East Anglian English, tracking the complex situation of imperfect immigrant speech varieties with competing dialect feature diffusion. In Ch. 3 T makes use of numerous ‘lesser-known Englishes’ to shed light on the strange situation of apparent /v/ and /w/ merger in certain eighteenth-nineteenth century ‘English English’ dialects and subsequent ‘unmerger’, showing that, contrary to accepted opinion, ‘once a merger’ is not necessarily ‘always a merger’ (91). In Ch. 4 T uses the analysis of recordings of a very special informant from the English language community in the Bonin Islands to trace the origins of that speech variety back to eastern New England English, which is happily supported by the historical record.

In Ch. 5 T conducts a very strong historical syntactic analysis to examine the divergent usages of have in modern standard American and British English. He ascribes the lack of ‘dynamism’ of American have to ‘colonial lag’ and the influences of other immigrant languages in the Americas not present in Britain, i.e. language contact. Ch 6 shows how colonial language varieties tend to be more conservative than the mother tongue, due to the unique speech conditions of colonization, namely intense dialect contact.

Ch. 7 is an attempt to trace the origin of r-lessness in New Zealand English. T uses the Origins of New Zealand English (ONZE) recordings to prove that earlier stages of New Zealand English were in fact rhotic, making the importation of the modern feature from Britain distinctly impossible. This sheds light not only on the original rhoticity of New Zealand English, but also pushes back the date for complete non-rhoticity of English English. This chapter thus shows how detailed sociohistorical analysis can admit insights that are impossible from a strictly historical perspective. Ch. 8 makes further use of the ONZE corpus to attempt to trace the influence or lack of influence of Scots and Scottish English on the development of New Zealand English.

In the epilogue, T relates the general trends identified throughout the work with the biological notion of ‘interactional synchrony’, which states that humans instinctively adapt their behavior to that of their peers (189). T believes that this single idea sits as the underlying motivation of the wide-ranging types of contact-induced change outlined throughout the book.

This book creates a brilliant new paradigm for research in linguistics. Just as the name suggests, the book bridges the heretofore vast divide between sociolinguistic and historical linguistic approaches to language and language change, encapsulating the difference between macrodiachronic linguistics and microdiachronic linguistics. T skillfully navigates the formal and the informal, incorporating aspects of popular history with detailed insights on all levels of linguistic structure, making this a delightful read.