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 Acquisition and Historical Linguistics 6/7

Language acquisition plays a significant role in historical linguistics today. After Chomsky’s insistence that there is an inborn aptitude for the use of language systems, linguists began to investigate what elements comprise language acquisition and which parts within the process could help describe how and why language changes.

It would be interesting to cite the part of Steven Pinker’s discussion on why language is only partially learned. He explains that children acquire just bits of the language and how this is related to the universal grammar (Pinker 242-243). The first reason is obvious: it would be difficult for the brain during the evolution to develop a neuronal structure that would store an immense number of words. The second reason for partial learning, somewhat more interesting in the light of historical linguistics, is that “language inherently involves sharing a code with other people”:

An innate grammar is useless if you are the only one possessing it: it is a tango of one, the sound of one hand clapping. But the genomes of other people mutate and drift and recombine when they have children. Rather than selecting for a completely innate grammar, which would soon fall out of register with everyone else’s, evolution may have given children an ability to learn the variable parts of language as a way of synchronising their grammars with that of the community (Pinker 243).

Book cover
In this book Hale gives an excellent explanation about different uses of the word "language". (Image source: Amazon)

This “sharing” is immensely important, not only because of the obvious reasons (a language dies with its speakers), but also because of acquisition/transfer of language, or, as already noted “a grammar” in Hale’s terminology. Hale refers to “grammar” as a knowledge state, shaped in acquirer’s mind when the acquirer is exposed to primary linguistic data (PLD, provided by E-Language). The data interacts with the acquirer’s hardcoded linguistic ability (“initial state of knowledge of language”), or universal grammar. We can label the steps of “grammar” acquisition as S1, S2 and so on. At an Sn stage we can claim that acquisition is over.

There are several interesting conclusions related to the acquisition process. The first is in defining the steps of acquisition and answering why the definition is important in the context of “grammar” and E-language. The answer is that acquirers adopt a grammar by rejecting the S1 stage in favour of the S2 to reach the level when they can generate the PLD to which they were initially exposed (Hale 13). What exactly happens between the stages, and whether there are some key elements regarding the language change, or whether there are conditions that influence the change – are rather interesting questions that Hale addresses, too. However, they are out of the scope of this Paper, so it would suffice to state that children in their mature states of language acquisition speak like people to whose language they were exposed, effectively updating PLD for the future acquirers.

The second important conclusion is that in this model there must be a terminal state of acquisition. The absence of it would cause a serious problem: if the acquirers continue to modify their knowledge state, if they continue to learn the “grammar” throughout their life, there would be no stage in the language definable as “synchronic state”. Without synchronous states of language, linguists could not set the markers for the study of the differences between the states, or, in other words, there would be no valid empirical framework for the diachronic study (Hale 14).

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Historical Linguistics: Remarks

Mutual intelligibility, Wave Theory (5/7)

It seems easy to claim that one language is different form another, so that it should be labelled differently. Linguist tried to devise different criteria for labelling one language as unique, including mutual intelligibility.


Max Weinreich wrote that “a language is a dialect which has an army and a navy” and after this quotation Campbell (193) explained how the definition of language is not entirely a linguistic matter. For example, although Norwegians and Swedes understand each other, their languages have different names. Even more strikingly, in China there are many dialects and understanding between their speakers varies significantly. In accordance with the mutual intelligibility criterion, a linguist would categorize them as separate languages, but all those dialects are by recognized by the Chinese government as the single Chinese language. The mutual intelligibility is not reliable even to distinguish a dialect from a language. The criterion states that “[e]ntities which are totally incomprehensible to speakers of other entities clearly are mutually unintelligible, and for linguists they therefore belong to separate languages” (ibid). Campbell illustrated the problem by explaining that Portuguese speakers understand Spanish very well, which does not apply to the extent to which Spanish speakers understand Portuguese. In Europe during nineties, the naming of new languages, such as Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, came after the disintegration of the former Serbo-Croatian language.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling
There are many dialects in China (Image source: Wikimedia)

However, dialectology plays an important role in historical linguistics. One of the attempts to explain change was given by Johannes Schmidt, who in 1872 published the improved version of the “Wave Theory”, a model:

[W]here changes were said to emanate from a centre as waves on a pond do when a stone is thrown into it, where waves from one centre … can cross or intersect … waves coming from other … centres. Changes due to language contact (borrowing) were seen as analogous to successive waves crossing one another …. (Campbell 189)

Chomsky introduced "I-Language" and "E-Language" (Image source: Wikimedia)

To discuss which definition of language can be used in the synchronic empirical study, we must mention Chomsky, who distinguished “externalized” and “internalized” language, or E-language and I-language, respectively – in the synchronic language states. To Chomsky, E-Language is “normative”, which is his term for the sociopolitical language, it is “the construct … understood independently of the properties of the mind/brain”; conversely, I-Language is “some element of the mind of the person who knows the language, acquired by the learner, and used by the speaker-hearer”.

In the context of historical linguistics it is significant that I-Language consists of elements that create a generative system of language. This idea is important, because linguistic competence in humans is not a mere transfer of sets of utterances (“normative” language), “but rather … the coming into being in the mind of the acquirer of a system for generating linguistic representations” (ibid). Put in another way, it is possible to contrast “aspects of the output conditioned by features of the grammar and those … conditioned by extragrammatical factors” (ibid). By including this into the study of historical linguistics, the discipline improved form the stage of deciphering dead languages to modern theories and significant relationships between language, mind, reality and society.

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