Language – Synchrony and Diachrony (4/7)

Synchrony, as introduced and contrasted to diachrony by Saussure, is “the absence of a time element in linguistic description” and consequently “more directly evidential” than the diachronic study (Trask 287). In the nineteenth century, as described by Hale (8), when scholars had at their disposal only few sets of dead languages, it was assumed that language is corpora. However, living languages have many properties that dead do not, and vice versa.

Corpora have limited vocabulary and restricted number of utterances, and dead languages cannot be described and provide phonetic data (ibid). This limited evidence of languages from the past is only partial evidence of how languages once looked, or as Hale puts it, they are “accidentally preserved records” (9). This is why historical linguistics cannot achieve empirically valid conclusions, if the scholars assume language is a corpus: “we must not confuse the nature of the attestation of a language with what that language was when alive” (ibid). Linguists should focus on both synchronic and the diachronic aspect of the languages.

Ferdinand de Saussure [a photo portrait]
Ferdinand de Saussure (public domain image)
Saussure claimed, in citation given by Hale (6), that to examine language in a synchronic view means to focus on “reality of speakers”, while diachronic study implies not examining language, but “a series of events that modify it”. Put in another way, in synchronic examination linguists observe the snapshots of languages, i.e. the states of languages at a particular moment in history. Once this is accomplished, scholars are usually speaking about contemporary language. The diachronic examination then includes finding answers about what happens between two or more stages of a language during the time.

However, do we know what a synchronic definition of language is? It appears that throughout literature there has been a “clear mixing … between an empirically useful conception of ‘language’ (as the object of study of linguistics) and more everyday uses of this term” (Hale 6). Hale further informs us that he is going to use the word “language” as a predominantly sociopolitical term, while “grammar” will mean “the object of study of linguistics as a discipline” (ibid). He did this in order to focus on the linguistic domain of language and to reject the possible misinterpretation due to an overlap of sociopolitical meaning of the word “language”, with that of the linguistic meaning.

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Trubetzkoy, Chomsky (3/7)

After World War One more scientific techniques were applied to the study of language, induced by discoveries in theoretical research and archaeology. One of the most prominent scholars of this period is N.S. Trubetzkoy who, in his book titled in English Principles of Phonology (1939) “made signal contribution of combining Saussure’s social view of the system of language with the psychological view of the neogrammarians” (Lehmann 37). One of the important topics in the Principles was the notion of marking. Trubetzkoy used the oppositions of sounds to prove their distinction, as linguists did in 1920s, but he used the term “marked element” to label “the entity with the feature that is lost …” (Lehmann 38). The concept of “markedness” is today regarded as “linguistically central” (Trask 163), especially because it was successfully extended to grammar and lexicology (Lehmann 38). Roman Jakobson, who greatly contributed to generative linguistics, later introduced the use of distinctive features, instead of the whole phonemes, thus extending the concept of marking. As Lehman states, rules derived from distinctive feature were much more precise that those from the entire phonemes, which further systematically strengthened the findings of historical linguistics.

Noam Chomsky is one on the greatest linguists and thinkers of the twentieth century. He is credited for significant shift towards synchronic examination of language within historical linguistics. However, the influence was mutual, since the discipline itself affected Chomsky’s philosophy. Reading historical linguistics motivated Chomsky to develop a “rationalist” approach. This was in contrast with the then current “empirists’ view” that human mind gets all content by “’learning’ it from environmental conditions” (McGilvray 14):

The rationalist recognizes, of course, that experience and “external” factors play a role in the mind’s “choosing” which concepts to activate or develop. But the rationalist denies that external elements shape and constitute concepts via the operations of some sort of domain-general learning procedure such as hypothesis formation and testing. Circumstances serve to “occasion” or “trigger” the introduction of a concept; crucially, the mind’s own machinery dictates what “patterns” in the data count as appropriate “occasions.” The patterns are, in a sense, built into the mind all along. (ibid)

This would give rise to new theories with a focus on language acquisition, again reaffirming the significance of contemporary language examination for historical linguistics.

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Historical Linguistics from 18th Century to World War One

Linguistics from 18th Century to World War One (2/7)

The interest in past helped the development of comparative research and new ideas. Thus Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) wrote about phonological relationships between Greek and Old Norse words, for example pate : father (ibid). Hock explained (37-38) that although Rask discovered  that the most fascinating feature of PIE aspirates bh, dh, gh is “their aspiration, rather than the presence or absence of feature [voice]”, related sound changes were later named the Grimm’s Law, because Jacob Grim “most successfully brought them [the changes] to the attention of the linguistic community”. In the second edition of his grammar (1822), which was strongly influenced by the work of Rask, Jacob Grimm “formulated the rules that set the pattern for scientific historical phonology” (Lehmann 28).

Grimm’s sound change description had flaws. The first one was the absence of the shift of p t k after Germanic fricatives, but in 1830s it was clear to most linguists that this change did not affect clusters of consonants after Germanic fricatives (ibid 30). After that, Hermann Grassman (1809-77) solved the problem of the aspirates: he defined the loss of aspiration in Greek and Latin. This was followed by Karl Verner’s (1846-96) explanation on how Indo-European voiceless stops in a voiced context, if not preceded by an accent, become voiced fricatives.

This investigation in phonetic change was one of the most fascinating periods in the early era of historical linguistics, and surely a most notable one. New discoveries continued after the well-known work of Franz Bopp (1791-1867) was published, about the Sanskrit system of conjugation compared with that of Greek.

The consequence of these developments was that the new linguistic discipline was changing from a descriptive to a more investigative and more systematic research.

The definitive establishment of the systematic character of historical linguistics was given to it by the Neogrammarians. Karl Brugmann (1849-1919) was one of the most prominent representatives of the Neogrammarian hypothesis, which was devised by a group of linguist in Leipzig and Munich. As language materials and knowledge about linguistics were becoming more abundant, the Neogrammarians believed they had “enough evidence to declare that sound change was invariably regular – that is, that a given sound in a given context in a given language always changed in the same way, without exception” (Trask 111).

The following stage in the development of historical linguistics was the focus on the social and psychological aspects of the language change. In one of his essays  Brugmann defines language as having double nature: psychological and physical. Brugmann criticised his predecessors for not paying attention to the psychological side of speech, which was, according to this scholar, important for fuller understanding of the sound change (Lehmann 31). Indeed, this standpoint will later initiate psycholinguistic examination of language. Brugmann was very critical of the works of that time, stating that linguists needed to study living languages as well, not only “dead” ones. He formulated “two most important principles of the neogrammarian movement: first, every sound change takes place according to laws that admin no exception. Second, form association, that is, the creation of new forms by analogy, plays a very important role in the life of language” (Lehmann 31).

One of the best-known linguists of all times is Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). His lectures Cours de linguistiqe generale (1916), published by his students, explained how Saussure referred “to language in general as langage, to the underlying structure as langue and to spoken language as parole” (Lehmann 34). The theoretical frame Saussure constructed enabled linguists in general to distance themselves from “psychological emphasis of the neogrammarians”.

At the beginning of 19th century sociology as a discipline began its development, and affected other humanities. Linguistics was not an exception. Antonie Meillet, Saussure’s student, in his famous Oslo lectures (1924) claimed that “a language cannot be understood if we do not have an idea of the conditions under which the people who use it live” and further, that linguists are interested “not in the norms but in the way in which language is used”, as cited by Lehmann (35). This greatly contributed to dialectology, and to the research on how a language changes in contact with speakers of a different language or dialect.

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Introduction to Historical Linguistics