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The Rise and Fall of Languages

Cambridge University Press, 11-12-1997 169 pages 1. This book puts forward a new approach to language change, the punctuated equilibrium model. This is based on the premise that during most of the 100,000 or more years that humans have had language, states of equilibrum have existed during which linguistic features diffused across the languages in a given area so that they gradually converged on a common prototype. From time to time, the state of equilibrium would be punctuated, with the expansion and split of peoples and of languages. Most recently, as a result of European colonization and globalization of communication, many languages face imminent extinction.
2. An interesting take on language change--accounts for areal similarities in terms of periods of political/social stability and accounts for differences between genetically related languages in terms of periods of political/social instability. 3. An excellent introduction to historical linguistics, precisely because it is a partisan case for an alternative voice in the field (by a major contributor) and not just the same old IndoEuropean examples. Well-written, packed with smart thinking, it is a fast read and well worth the price.

4. More of a technical, linguistics nerd book, but still some pretty interesting stuff. Overall, though, it's not very memorable.

5. "It is rather like someone reporting that the Queen of England moonlights as a doorto-door encyclopedia salesperson (which is why she declines all invitations to dinner parties).
6. This book provides a decent introduction to linguistics, and though peppered liberally with professional jargon, accomplishes its goal of appealing to a non-linguistic audience. Dixon suggests that the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium provides a more accurate description of the evolution of language than the traditional comparative method. His argument is convincing on a lot of points, but I would like to know how professionals in his field responded to his ideas. He is highly critical of new directions in linguistics and is not at all shy about sharing those thoughts. I couldn't find any reviews of the book in linguistic or anthropological journals, though I'm sure there must be one somewhere. Dixon is also critical of other fields, claiming that archaeologists, geneticists, and anthropologists "happily accept any family tree that is produced, without stopping to ask whether it is soundly based, and whether it is accepted by the majority of linguists" (p 43). However, he fails to cite any evidence to back up this statement, and in fact repeats that pattern throughout the book.