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.

9 thoughts on “Historical Linguistics: A Recommendation

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  1. But we still have “fork”, and the “r” is silent in most British English and some American pronunciations. Also in some Italian pronunciations: see this Youtube, which sounds like it has bad words in it although the subtitles show that they aren’t really.

    1. Maybe you need to write to Josephs and Hock and let them know.

      I’ve never heard that particular pronunciation–but then I’ve been in few contexts with British English speakers where “fork” might be said. I’m guessing for the “some American pronunciations” you’d be referring to the various Northeastern American dialects like Bostonian or certain areas of New York City–though despite having a Bostonian friend over for dinner a few times, I’m yet to have heard him say the word “fork,” so I can’t say for sure. There’s also been a couple phonological studies that have shown that despite what we hear, our tongues do actually move to some extent toward the places of articulation even for silent letters (which, incidentally, challenges most rule based phonological theory of the past 50 years).

      Either way, the general point still does hold in the majority of cases if you work through the OED.

      But for the sake of more perfect preciseness, I’ve added the word “many” to that particular sentence:
      “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.”

      1. I don’t think my tongue moves to put any kind of “r” sound in “fork”. I realise “or” as a pure vowel sound, actually purer than most other long vowels in English. Don’t take the YouTube video as a guide to how I talk! But I know that in some cases when I speak postvocalic “r” is realised as a schwa off-glide – e.g. in “hire” which for me is subtly different from “higher”.

        Yes, Bostonian. Other Americans mock them for saying “I pahked my cah in Hahvahd Yahd”, but that is just how I say it – although when I tried to do that last year (with a rental car) I couldn’t find a space. Next time you have your Bostonian friend over for dinner, give him just a knife and a spoon and listen for what he asks for!

        1. I’ll have to see if I can find that article. We discussed it extensively in advanced phonology because it was such a huge issue.

          I knew that Bostonians did this with what would be an [ɑ] for me, but I didn’t realize they did with other back vowels (in my dialect).

          Thanks for your services as a language informant! 😉

    2. The Australian accent is also non-rhotic. What seems ironic (those is probably a consequence of being non-rhotic) is that we sometimes use an intrusive R, adding one where there never was one, such as at the end of “America” when it’s followed by a vowel.

      “Fork you” is actually a fairly common phrase – check Google for many examples.

      1. Believe it or not, the epenthetic “r” is relatively common in New England two, which also is non-rhotic.

        “I have an idea” =”I have an idea-r.”

        Also it happens with some British as well. The actress who plays William Wilberforce’s wife in Amazing Grace (and Emma in a recent version of the Jane Austin novel) also has the epenthetic “r.”

  2. Mike, I can’t speak for Bostonians but I thought their accent was non-rhotic like many British and Aussie ones. Yes, we hear the intrusive or epenthetic “r” in England too, but I suspect mostly among people who have tried to learn to a rhotic accent which isn’t natural to them. That is certainly the cause of “h” appearing in inappropriate places in the speech of cockneys (who naturally drop “h”) trying to speak RP.

    I think the actress you mean is Romola Garai. Despite her name she is British but “She grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong until she was eight when her family returned to lay roots in Wiltshire.” So she probably learned non-rhotic English as a young child but then moved to an area where the local accent is rhotic, hence the confusion.

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