Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium

Winfred P. Lehmann and Yakov Malkiel, eds.

Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-8399
Copyright © 1968 by the University of Texas Press
All Rights Reserved

Printed by The University of Texas Printing Division, Austin
Bound by Universal Bookbindery, Inc., San Antonio

Dedicated to the memory of


By the middle of the 1960's the two editors of this collection had for some time been discussing the inadequate attention to historical linguistics and the need to restore historical studies to their position of leadership among the primary linguistic disciplines. A symposium concerned with some of the central theoretical topics seemed the proper device for renewing interest. An occasion for the symposium presented itself with the establishment of The University of Texas' program in linguistics as a separate department in the academic year 1965-66. After selection of the principal speakers — reflecting the tastes of three “generations” — and extensive correspondence with them on the most desirable topics in a context so defined, the symposium, supported by The University's Excellence Fund, convened on April 29-30, 1966. Tentative versions of all five major communications by the authors of the essays published here were preprinted and distributed among the hundred or so participants, making it possible for the writers to present a shorter version orally and to reserve ample time for discussion. The papers were subsequently revised, partly on the basis of comments by participating linguists. For the authors we express our gratitude to the discussants, especially for such contributions from them as may have been tacitly incorporated in the present expanded version of these essays. We hope that the topics seem as central to others concerned with historical linguistics as they did to the principals on that memorable occasion — which we hope may be the first in a series of such colloquia.

The first topic involved the task of putting current work in perspective with that carried out when the historical viewpoint virtually monopolized the field of linguistics. The ability and the intention to treat language as a structure may be the chief differences between the approach of the great nineteenth-century pioneers and our own activities. However many linguists contributed to the structural approach, the impetus for it derives mainly from Ferdinand de Saussure. In achieving for linguistics the status of a structurally oriented discipline Saussure sharply distinguished descriptive from historical analysis. Today, when Saussure's ideas have been fairly well assimilated, it may be advisable to examine the extent to which his dichotomy has affected historical linguistics. Among most modernists, language is viewed as a series of levels or strata, in particular the phonological and the morphosyntactic. Accounting for sound change has, of course, been one of the chief concerns of historical linguists. By standard theory sound change takes place at the phonological level; as a result, the entire edifice may then be rearranged through new patterning at the morphosyntactic or semantic planes. Yet the assumption of such neat strata, with carefully specified directions of interaction, possibly reflects a grasp of language simplified for pedagogical presentation. An unbiased examination of more intimate relationships between the various strata conducive to sound change, with full allowance for an occasional reversal of the accepted sequence or hierarchy, ranks among the key problems of historical linguistics, as suggested in the second essay.

But if nonphonological components may have an effect on phonological development, how should we define the relationship between the morphological and the phonological components of language? What sort of entities must we posit? Linguists have generally operated with a prime phonological entity, the phoneme, and a prime morphological entity, the morpheme, without achieving agreement on the interfacing of the two strata. The assumption of an intermediate entity, as Jerzy Kuryłowicz indicates, might leave the theorist's standard strata essentially untouched, while providing the mechanism for deepened understanding of phonological and morphological change.

In contrast to the generous share of attention which change at the phonological level has traditionally received, change at the morphosyntactic level has by and large been examined from the angle of “chain reactions,” that is, rearrangements of morphological and syntactic forms entailed by phonological change. Modification of morphosyntactic categories — gender, case, syntagms built around function words — and the rise of new patterns to express them for the most part remain to be explored. A theoretical framework for such examination, as traced by Émile Benveniste, constitutes one critically urgent need for historical probings. With such a framework at our disposal, morphosyntactic change and its effects can be studied as intensively as has been phonological change.

The material on which historical linguistic theory is based has been taken in most instances from preurban societies, often preliterate and even prehistoric speech communities. Proto-Germanic must have been spoken by a small group; similarly proto-Indo-European. When historical linguists began to concern themselves with languages eventually emerging from groups such as classical Greek, they generally focused attention on subgroups, such as Attic Greek. The resultant techniques and the theory itself must now be tested against the situation observable in complex urban groups. For in complex societies the stimuli for change, and the constraints on it, may be more diversified, as must be the techniques for dealing with them. Besides accounting for current changes in language, only refinements of method which may result from such study are bound to clarify problems left unsolved in historical linguistic study of the past. Among the most imaginative studies of change in contemporary linguistic communities are those carried on by Marvin Herzog and William Labov, in conjunction with the late Uriel Weinreich. The conclusions they have reached may provide the starting point for inquiries into the dynamics of other contemporary communities.

It is no diminution of the shares of Professors Herzog and Labov in this study to state that much of the original impetus for their research came from Uriel Weinreich. Few would deny that his work, carried on without fanfare in a tragically short lifespan, has provided some of the most noteworthy contributions to linguistics of the past decade and a half: on the varieties of language; on language in its relation to other facets of culture; on exploratory approaches to semantics. With a feeling of the great loss for linguistics caused by the untimely death of a splendid scholar, who was also a dear personal friend, we dedicate this book to his memory.

The Editors


Prefatory Note   vii
Saussure's Dichotomy between Descriptive and Historical Linguistics
    W. P. Lehmann
The Inflectional Paradigm as an Occasional Determinant of Sound Change
    Yakov Malkiel
The Notion of Morpho(pho)neme
    J. Kuryłowicz
Mutations of Linguistic Categories
    Émile Benveniste
Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change
    Uriel Weinreich, William Labov, and Marvin I. Herzog
         Bibliography   189
Index   197


1. Intersection of /u~i/ and Loss-of-Length Isoglosses                                           136
2. Class Stratification of (r)   178
3. Style and Class Stratification of (r)   180
4. Subjective Evaluation of (r)   182

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