Mechanisms of language change

Mechanisms of language change: Vowel reduction in 15th century West Frisian. By Arjen P. Versloot. (LOT dissertation series 195.) Utrecht: LOT, 2008. Pp. 368. ISBN 9789078328698. €29,96.

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This book, a Groningen dissertation, outlines two models of language change, discussing them in light of data from fifteenth century West Frisian texts. The first model is largely predictive, intended to model vowel reduction as a phonetic process, and focuses on vowels in individual words, rather than on vowels as abstract phonemes. The second model is more speaker-oriented, assigning the speaker the role of evaluating the language of other speakers and in turn estimating other speakers’ reactions to their own speech. Both of these models are rooted in the idea that language is ‘a deterministic dynamic system, governed by self-organisation’ (14). In the author’s view, both of these models are able to predict correctly various types of language change. Fifteenth century West Frisian was chosen as the data source for a number of reasons, ranging from the more pragmatic (a readily accessible electronic corpus is available) to the more philosophical (it exhibits a number of intriguing developments, including open syllable lengthening, syncope, degemination, and various changes in the case and gender system).

This book consists of six chapters: the ‘Introduction’ (1–79), which lays out the parameters of the study; ‘Description of processes’ (81–201), which reviews the developments analyzed in this book; ‘Phonological interpretation’ (203–24), which analyzes the various developments in phonological terms; ‘Late mediaeval Frisian as a tonal language’ (225–56), which draws parallels between the Frisian situation and various tonal Scandinavian dialects and therefore concludes that late medieval Frisian was also tonal; ‘Modelling language change’ (257–94), which returns to the theoretical aspects of the study; and ‘Concluding remarks’ (295–303). The book also contains an extensive list of references, numerous maps, summaries in English and Dutch, and various indices.

There is much to admire in this book. Arjen Versloot has an excellent command of the material and has striven to communicate his grasp of and enthusiasm for the subject to the reader. In some ways, this attempt has been successful: The claim that late medieval Frisian was a tone language, for instance, is thoughtful and carefully-argued, and is rooted in parallels from both the Scandinavian languages and the West Germanic languages (e.g. certain Franconian dialects). In other ways, unfortunately, this book is somewhat less admirable: An excellent dissertation is not always an excellent book, and this volume regrettably falls into that category. Too many ideas are discussed and discarded that should probably have been removed before publication, there are some startling gaps in the bibliography (e.g. there is no reference to Tomas Riad’s work on the development of the Scandinavian accentual system or Willem Visser’s work on the syllable in Frisian), translations from other languages into English are not always completely accurate, and the entire book could have used a careful editing job by a native speaker of English to correct various stylistic and grammatical errors. These objections aside, this book will be of value for those interested in historical linguistics, Germanic linguistics, and Frisian.