Vernacular universals and language contacts

Vernacular universals and language contacts: Evidence from varieties of English and beyond. Ed. by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, and Heli Paulasto. (Routledge studies in Germanic linguistics 14.) New York: Routledge, 2009. Pp. vi, 385. ISBN 9780415992398. $120 (Hb).

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This book contains sixteen papers originally presented at a conference on World Englishes, held at the University of Joensuu in Finland in September 2006. The term vernacular universal is used for “features that are found (more or less) universally across all kinds of (nonstandard) varieties of different languages” (2). This book is divided into four parts: ‘The theory of vernacular universals’, ‘Consonant cluster reduction and default singulars: Prototypical vernacular universals?’, ‘Universals and contact in varieties of English’, and ‘Methodological and theoretical perspectives’. As the limitations of this forum preclude a full commentary on all of the papers in the volume, only one paper from each section will be discussed here, in order to provide a snapshot of this book’s contents.

This volume opens with an introduction by the editors, which discusses issues such as the markedness of vernacular universals and their (possible) role in second language acquisition and also outlines the contents of the rest of the book. In the section on ‘The theory of vernacular universals’, J. K. Chambers discusses ‘Cognition and the linguistic continuum from vernacular to standard’ (19–32). In this paper, Chambers examines the cognitive cost of linguistic complexity, suggesting that “vernaculars appear to be cognitively more efficacious than standard dialects” (20) and illustrating these points with an examination of look-ahead and look-back mechanisms in language processing.

In the next section, Terttu Nevalainen’s ‘Number agreement in existential constructions: A sociolinguistic study of eighteenth-century English’ (80–102) considers subject-verb agreement, treating issues like synchronic and diachronic variation, eighteenth-century prescriptivist views of the subject, and variation according to factors such as gender.

In the section on ‘Universals and contact in varieties of English’, Donald Winford offers a paper entitled ‘The interplay of ‘universals’ and contact-induced change in the emergence of New Englishes’ (206–30). Winford argues that contact vernaculars like Irish English and English-lexicon are the ‘result of “natural” or “untutored” SLA [second language acquisition], and that the theoretical framework within which SLA has been studied is most relevant to a unified explanation of their origins’ (207). This claim is supported by a discussion of the development of tense-mood-aspect systems in three such vernaculars (Irish English, Singapore Colloquial English, and Barbadian creole).

Finally, in the last section of the book, Sarah G. Thomason tackles the question of ‘Why universals vs. contact-induced change?’ (349–64). In Thomason’s view, this dichotomy is unsustainable, as many cases of language change involve both universals and language contact; this argument is illustrated by data from languages such as English and Montana Salish.

This is a valuable book that will be of use to those interested in historical linguistics, language contact, and sociolinguistics. My only reservation is the rather steep price.