Historical Linguistics: Remarks 7/7

These brief overviews were an attempt to describe in which form the relatively new discipline within language science, historical linguistics, has existed throughout human history, although it had not been explicitly named until relatively recently.  At first, it was the object of the study of those rare individuals whose task was to preserve sacred texts for future generations. In the Middle Ages it was under the spell of religious allegory, in the form of biblical influence on the understanding of the while world, including language.

(This text is follow-up on the previous posts. See the historical linguistics category, or scroll down to see the previous texts’s link.)

It was not until the eighteen century that the discipline slowly changed form then hobbyist interest to a structured investigation. It was in this century that we “discovered” that Latin was not derived from Greek. In the eighteen century the Romantic Movement in Europe brought about a renaissance to historical linguistic: the Neogrammarians boasted with what was then believed to be a law “that knows no exceptions”, but what contemporary linguists recognize as one of the most vivid periods in historical linguistics, and surely the point from which the following discoveries would become increasingly more scientific.

Two prominent linguists, Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky, significantly contributed to the historical study of language. Saussure insisted on contemporary stages of language in relation to the study of change, and thus brought attention to the synchronic phase of historical linguistics, recognising synchrony as being of great importance. This marked the decisive freeing from the misconception that to answer the fundamental questions of “how” and “why” a language changes linguists ought to study dead languages and the obscure evidence of their “attestations” (Hale). Chomsky’s contribution to humanities and sciences in general is immense, and his theories play a very important role in historical linguistics. Based on his “I-language” and “E-language” distinction scholars have realised that there might have been some flaws in the definition of the object of study: is the object an arbitrary notion of sociopolitical language or should there be a more empirical definition?

Lattin letters in a wall
Ancient language information often comes from monuments. (Image source: Wikimedia)

The answer is that a scientific definition of a language is required. To reach such definition, historical linguists became surprisingly interested in how human mind works, which is an exciting change from examining cold scratched monuments and dusty books. This mind-language interest appeared because of Chomsky’s work on generative grammar and the underlying idea that human brain naturally possesses only mechanisms of how language systems work, while the language content is acquired in the community of the speaker.

The concepts of the generative nature of language and the importance of external language sources initiated new research within historical linguistics in relation to applied linguistics, or more precisely – the issues of language acquisition. The answer to the question whether some changes in language can be explained by a “less than ideal” acquisition, or other phenomena, remains today as one of the most intriguing currents within historical linguistics, together with further study into internal and external causes of the change (Campbell 286).

Previous text: Language Acquisition and Historical Linguistics

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.

Previous: Historical Linguistics: Trubetzkoy and Chomsky,
Next: Mutual intelligibility, Wave Theory

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.

Next: Historical Linguistics: “Language” – Synchrony and Diachrony
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Historical Linguistics from 18th Century to World War One