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The Rise and Fall of Languages Paperback – January 13, 1998

9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521626545 ISBN-10: 0521626544

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"This book is required reading for anyone seriously interested in what we can honestly recover from the past history of languages." James A. Matisoff, University of California, Berkeley

"This book will be seminal in bringing about a paradigm shift in historical linguistics." Randy J. LaPolla, Academia Sinica Taiwan and City University of Hong Kong

Book Description

This book puts forward a new way of looking at the emergence and development of human language since its beginnings over 100,000 years ago in terms of a state of equilibrium which was periodically 'punctuated'. Punctuations saw the expansion or split of peoples and of languages, most recently as a result of European colonisation and the globalisation of communication. Professor Dixon challenges many of the views currently held by linguists, archaeologists and geneticists, notably those concerning the usefulness of the 'family tree' model of language relationships and the recent speculation concerning the reconstruction of a 'proto-language'.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (January 13, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521626544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521626545
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.4 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,580,022 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
R M Dixon is a well known linguist who specializes in the aboriginal languages of Australia. In this captivating book, Dixon presents his theory of punctuated equilibrium (adopted from the idea of the same name by evolutionary theorists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge) to describe how languages change. Dixon challenges linguists to dedicate more time to the study and description of the thousands of languages on the verge of extinction, rather than devote their energies to arcane formalisms. The author is also highly critical of those historical linguists who claim to have found evidence for the "mother of all languages", accusing them of poor methodology. Historical linguistics involves slow and painstaking analysis of language forms, and Dixon is not the first to chastise newcomers for shoddy work. Dixon's book is not overly technical, and is thus suited for both a professional and a lay audience. Anyone interested in learning more about the evolution of language should read Dixon's latest work.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Whimemsz on August 7, 2006
Format: Paperback
The book is a somewhat short essay by Dixon arguing that a theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" best explains linguistic relationships. That is, he believes that for most of the time language has existed, languages have been in states of equilibrium with their neighbors, during which time they would gradually converge on an areal prototype (through exchange of lexical items, grammatical concepts and categories--though not many actual grammatical forms--and features of pronunciation). These states of equilibrium would be occasionally punctuated by some "catastrophic" event (e.g., a volcanic eruption, an invasion by some other group into the area, the invention of some new technology, or the development of agriculture). During these short periods of punctuation, languages would rapidly change and split into daughters.

According to Dixon, it is these situations which would create the type of "family tree" relationship among languages which the Comparative Method is designed to reconstruct, and which so beautifully fits with the IE family. However, this was not the normal situation, and after a few millennia, these daughter languages would gradually start to enter into states of equilibrium with their new neighbors, gradually becoming more like the areal prototype of their new location, and eventually obscuring their genetic relationships.

Dixon's decades of experience with Australian languages clearly influenced this idea greatly, and it certainly seems like it could apply well to the situation there. Intuitively, furthermore, the idea seems to me like a plausible one, and I had already assumed something vaguely similar to it before I read the book. However, the book turned out to be quite dissapointing. I felt like Dixon did a poor job of backing up his hypothesis.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is not the best first book to read in linguistics, but if you already know some general linguistics and historical linguistics, it's good. What it significantly does is offer a critique of the Nostratic School of linguistics (which has been done elsewhere, most notably on a PBS "Nova" show) and offer a new critique, a punctuated equilibrium theory borrowed from the natural sciences. The p-e theory is quite cogent, but Dixon doesn't develop it in too much detail (which is actually his point, that most of the history of human language is irrecoverable). What Dixon does do is offer a research program for practicing linguistics as well as a huge putdown of the theoretical obsessions of most linguists practicing today. This part of the book is actually the most entertaining and courageous; I agree with the author in thinking that too much work is being devoted to Chomskyan (and other purely theoretical) linguistics and not enough to descriptive studies. Whether the money is actually available to record the 1500 or so as-yet unrecorded languages is highly debatable. Dixon himself puts forward a figure of about $300,000 per language. I have a feeling that if any government agency decides to follow through with Dixon's proposals, they'll have to pick and choose which languages to save. Although Dixon puts himself forward as a tough-minded reactionary railing against the vaporisms in contemporary linguistics, he winds up being in the same boat as impractical environementalists to whom any suggestion of, say, which chunk of rainforest to save is complete sacrilege.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By David Ludden on June 29, 2007
Format: Paperback
In 1972, evolutionary biologists Niles Eldredge and Steven Jay Gould proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In contrast to the more generally accepted theory of gradualism, they proposed that most of the change over the evolutionary history of a species occurs in relatively short bursts, called punctuations, followed by long periods of relatively little change, known as equilibria. Comparative linguistics employs many of the same models as evolutionary biology. Languages, like species, change in their characteristics over time; both languages and species diverge, and both eventually go extinct. As linguists trace the histories of languages and attempt to reconstruct their ancestors, most take a gradualist approach to language change. In "The Rise and Fall of Languages," however, linguist R. M. W. Dixon argues that punctuated equilibrium is a better model for considering language change.

The delineation of the Indo-European family tree and the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European are arguably the two greatest accomplishments of nineteenth century linguistics. They also provided the model for doing comparative linguistics in the rest of the world. Using the same methods (and underlying assumptions), many other languages have also been grouped into families and their protolanguages reconstructed. One important assumption in this endeavor has been that languages change, from generation to generation, at a constant rate; this enables linguists to create a timeline of change for building family trees. Dixon agrees that languages are always in flux, but he argues that the rate of change is not steady.

On Dixon's view, periods of rapid linguistic change are rare; they are the punctuations of the punctuated-equilibrium model.
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