What is it about?

This is a review article on the occasion of A.C. Harris & L. Campbell (1995) 'Historical Syntax in Cross-Linguistic Perspective'. Unlike most recent studies in diachronic syntax within precincts of various syntactic frameworks focusing on a single language, Harris and Campbell investigate syntactic changes cross-linguistically with as few assumptions as possible. Throughout the 12 chapters of the monograph they approach their wide-ranging data from the Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages (Finno-Ugric, Kartvelian, Mayan, North-East Caucasian, Uto-Aztecan) avoiding the excesses of the 'autonomous' syntax thesis. Their basic methodology of 'Intersystemic Comparison' involves whole syntactic systems (not just atomistic facts). Three basic 'mechanisms' are recognized: reanalysis and extension (= internal mechanisms) and syntactic borrowing (an external mechanism). Several chapters are devoted to the salient issues of historical syntax (simplification of biclausal structures, word order, alignment of morphology and syntax, the development of complex constructions and reconstruction of syntax).

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Why is it important?

The authors seek to establish a general framework for the investigation of linguistic change. Systemic cross-linguistic comparisons of individual languages allow them to construct hypotheses about the causes, universals and limits of language change. The fruitfulness of their approach is obvious in the investigation of current 'hot' issues' in Historical Linguistics: grammaticalization, alignment of morphology and syntax (the rise and demise of ergativity), reinterpretation cum syntactic analogy, revamping of tense/aspect systems, diachrony of case/adposition systems, and others.


This unique monograph represents a major contribution to the dynamic field of Historical Linguistics. A general framework for the investigation of syntactic change will be greatly appreciated by specialists in individual languages/language families. Their proclaimed method of 'Intersystemic Comparison' transfers the best of structural and comparative phonology and morphology into the realm of syntax. On the whole, it offers a much needed theoretical framework for further research in the demanding field of historical syntax

Dr Vit M. Bubenik
Memorial University of Newfoundland

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This page is a summary of: Toward a Theory of Syntactic Change, Diachronica, January 1996, John Benjamins,
DOI: 10.1075/dia.13.1.08bub.
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