Trask’s historical linguistics

Trask’s historical linguistics. Revised by Robert McColl Millar. London: Hodder Arnold, 2007. Pp. 514. ISBN 9780340927656. $49.95.

Reviewed by Nikolai Penner, University of Waterloo

This introductory textbook of historical linguistics is a revised edition of Robert Lawrence Trask’s well-known text, Historical linguistics (London: Hodder Arnold, 1996). Revised by Robert McColl Millar, this volume retains to a great extent the structure of the original (including Trask’s innovative use of Basque examples), while also incorporating some notable changes, such as an extended discussion of sociolinguistics and examples from Scots dialects (M’s area of expertise).

Designed as a text for a university course on historical linguistics, this volume is aimed at undergraduate students with little or no background in descriptive linguistics. It consists of twelve chapters, each followed by a case study, recommendations for further reading, and a set of original exercises.

Ch. 1, ‘The fact of language change’ (1–20), demonstrates that the processes of language change are operating now just as they were millennia ago. With a pinch of dry humor, M demonstrates that, contrary to the opinion of language conservatives and purists, language change is not negative or perverse but rather is a natural and necessary phenomenon.

Chs. 2–6 explore various types of linguistic change—specifically, ‘Lexical and semantic change’ (21–64), ‘Phonological change I: Change in pronunciation’ (65–96), ‘Phonological change II: Change in phonological systems’ (97–130), ‘Morphological change’ (131–70), and ‘Syntactic change’ (171–206). A range of examples from several languages and M’s anecdotal style make these chapters an entertaining read that introduces the concepts in a clear and logical way.

In Ch. 7, ‘Relatedness between languages’ (207–52), M discusses the consequences of language change and explores dialect geography, genetic relationships between languages, several models of language classification, and the origin of regional dialects and accents. This chapter also contains a brief description of the major language families.

Ch. 8, ‘The comparative method’ (253–310), introduces a method of reconstructing earlier stages of languages. M discusses its limitations, provides background on the neogrammarian hypothesis and on semantic reconstruction, and introduces language typology and universals. Ch. 9, ‘Internal reconstruction’ (311–32), explores the internal method of reconstruction.

Ch. 10, ‘The origin and propagation of change’ (333–86), tackles the Saussurean paradox, language variation, and lexical diffusion. M provides examples of studies by William Labov, Jim and Leslie Milroy, Peter Trudgill, and Matthew Chen and William Wang.

Finally, Ch. 11, ‘Social and historical pressures upon language: Contact, planning and the birth and death of languages’ (387–448), provides further discussion of language contact, language planning, and language birth and death. Ch. 12, ‘Language and prehistory’ (449–82), which concentrates on the history of languages, discusses linguistics in connection with paleontology and archeology and presents statistical methods for establishing the relatedness of languages in the distant past.

Overall, this book is a solid introduction to the discipline of historical linguistics. M presents the information in a lively and entertaining atheoretical way. He brilliantly demonstrates that historical linguistics is not a study of dry facts that have no relevance to the modern world but instead is a field that investigates live processes operating on languages today.