Language history, language change, and language relationship

Language history, language change, and language relationship: An introduction to historical and comparative linguistics. 2nd edn. By Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph. (Mouton textbook.) New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. xvii, 588. ISBN 9783110214291. $44.95.

Reviewed by Nikolai Penner, McMaster University

The second edition of this highly readable introductory textbook is aimed at the non-specialist but provides a tremendous degree of detail and ample illustrations from both familiar and more exotic languages. The book is divided into six sections.

The introductory section includes three chapters. The first sets the stage for the rest of the book by asking why languages change, discussing the types of linguistic change, and introducing the issue of language relationship. Ch. 2 discusses the Indo-European languages and provides a brief history of each of its branches. The next chapter, on the history of writing, looks at the writing systems of the world.

The second section deals with structural change in language, with three chapters on changes in the sound system, morphology, and syntax, respectively. The basic tools and concepts used to describe, classify, and analyze these changes are presented. The following section, ‘Change in the lexicon’, investigates vocabulary change, focusing on semantic change (Ch. 7) and lexical borrowing (Ch. 8). The last chapter in this section discusses the connection between language change and etymology.

The fourth section concerns the relations between language, dialect, and standard language as well as the effects of their interaction, and revisits the claim that a language is ‘a dialect with an army and a navy’. Linguistic change due to intense, long-lasting language contact is the topic of the fifth section. The opening chapter introduces the terminology needed for the further discussion, e.g. interference, code-switching, code-mixing, and koinés. Ch. 13 discusses language convergence and illustrates it with examples from large-scale convergence areas, such as the Balkans and South Asia. The next chapter concerns the outcomes of extremely intense language contact (pidgins and creoles), followed by a short chapter on language death.

The final section is devoted to language relationships. Ch. 16 presents the comparative method and discusses the possibility of establishing that several linguistic varieties are related to each other. Ch. 17 discusses whether it is possible to establish a common ancestor to all human languages and how human language arose in the distant past. Finally, the methods and interpretation of linguistic reconstruction are examined and some insights that historical linguistics holds for broader issues are discussed.

In order to increase the book’s readability, the authors avoided footnotes and excluded many references from the text. However, there is an extensive section of chapter notes at the end of the volume giving additional information and recommendations for further reading.

All in all, with this highly readable and informative book, the authors make the study of language history, contact, and change as exciting to their readers as they find it themselves.