Historical Linguistics: A Recommendation

I’ve been reading Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics by Hans Heinrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph lately. And contrary to two of the reviews on Amazon, it’s an incredibly accessible and readable book. It is an introduction, but I’d say that it is not really a textbook book. It’s more like tour guide showing its readers the field of historical linguistics and what is done in the field. It doesn’t give readers an opportunity to practice methods or approaches with exercises the way a textbook would do.

The book is also absolutely full of fascinating anecdotes about various languages and how they’ve changed over the centuries and millennia. For example, there is a fascinating story about how the English words sugar and saccharin (which have dramatically different meanings–real and fake sugar) developed from the exactly the same Proto Indo-European root.

Or consider taboo words. The English F-word has been taboo for centuries, so much so that it has done an extremely impressive job killing many other words that sound like it. If you check the OED for various words than begin with the sounds /f/ and end with the sound /k/ with any sort of vowel in the middle, the OED lists their last dated usage and some haven’t been used since the 1500’s. This avoidance in English of words with the /fVk/ pattern is the reason that we still have the English “feckless,” but it’s base word, “feck” has all but died out–though it seems to continue to be used in Ireland, but its normal sense of “efficacy; force; value” (from which “fleckless” is derived) and now seems to essentially function as replacement word for the taboo word. The power of taboo words to completely alter our lexicon is absolutely fascinating.*

Other fascinating tid-bits include the forces of socio-linguistic change and linguistic nationalism where countries like Iceland and China have cleaned their national languages of foreign borrowed words, but in other countries like English speaking ones has only resulted in people seeking to borrow as many words as possible out of the idea that such borrowing enriches their language.

Hock and Joseph’s book is also one of the view introductory books to cover the history of writer system that I’ve seen. And that alone gives it quite a bit of value compared to other books.

Anyway, its been an interesting read and I thought it would be worth sharing. Both Hock and Joseph hold the old grammarians in high esteem, while not being afraid to disagree with them either.


*Just so we’re clear, there is no actual swearing in their book. Hock and Joseph successfully write these 500 or so pages without using any taboo words.