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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Dichotomies of Change: Where to Draw the Line(s), if at All?



Brian Joseph and Hope Dawson


Historical linguistics and the study of language change have always dealt with a basic division in the types and causes of linguistic diachrony, namely changes motivated from within the linguistic system and those motivated from outside the system. This distinction has taken various terminological forms, most notably “evolutive” vs. “adaptative” change (Andersen 1973) and “transmission” vs. “diffusion” (Labov 2007), but it is seen also in the use of notions like “internal” vs. “external” change (e.g. in the literature on language contact), “organic” vs. “inorganic” (as found in nineteenth-century writings on language states, especially regarding the effects of language contact), and “endogenous” vs. “exogenous” change (popular now in, for example, phylogenetically inspired linguistic investigations).

Such a distinction is to be expected, given that language is both an individual (psychological/cognitive) entity and a social entity, and recognition of both dimensions to change can be argued to be necessary; as Hamp (1977:279) has observed, they are complementary, not competing—“twin faces of diachronic linguistics”, two key ways of elucidating sources of historical similarities and differences between languages. That is, we can only understand what is due to contact by having a clear picture of what is inherited, and conversely, to determine what is inherited, we need to rule out contact-related similarities.

Given the differing terminology, it is worth asking whether these various terms are nothing more than a reflection of terminological creativity on the parts of the coiners and users, or instead reflect essential conceptual differences or distinct nuances of perspective.

In this paper, we explore this very question, and given the historical priority that Andersen’s terminology has within modern linguistics, we start with the further question of whether, over the now nearly fifty years since he proposed his dichotomy, these notions and these terms have withstood the test of time. Moreover, we explore how Andersen’s conceptualization is similar to or different from those that came before him and those that followed, and thus the extent to which this is just an issue of terminology as opposed to substantively different conceptualizations.

At the same time, though, we delve further into this distinction and interrogate it from different vantage points, asking:

  • whether these distinctions (e.g. internal vs. external) apply to the initial motivation for a change or to the spread of a change, or both;
  • how to make clear what exactly is being talked about in particular cases, as many who recognize the distinction between initial motivation and spread nonetheless shift back and forth between the two opposed notions or even at times seem to collapse them;
  • whether “external” refers just to other speakers in general (including of one’s own dialect) or specifically to speakers of a dialect or language that is in some sense sufficiently different from one’s own;

and finally:

  • whether there really is an overall validity or necessity to the distinction between internal and external change, and whether it must be the case that changes are motivated only in one or the other way; cases of enhancement of tendencies present in a language due to contact, as with the spread of evidentiality into Balkan Slavic under Turkish influence, which accentuated existing characteristics emerging in the languages at the time (Friedman 2006), would appear to present a challenge to such a binary view.

Overall, these concerns add up to a rigorous investigation of a key distinction in historical linguistic theorizing and practice, and allow for an assessment of the value of a key element in the oeuvre of Henning Andersen as part of a special session honoring him.


Andersen, Henning. 1973. Abductive and deductive change. Language 49.765–93. DOI: 10.2307/412063.

Friedman, Victor A. 2006. Balkanizing the Balkan Sprachbund. Grammars in contact, ed. by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and R. M. W. Dixon, 201–9. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hamp, Eric. 1977. On some questions of areal linguistics. Berkeley Linguistics Society 3.279–82. DOI: 10.3765/bls.v3i0.3295.

Labov, William. 2007. Transmission and diffusion. Language 83.344–87. DOI: 10.1353/lan.2007.0082.

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