The Linguistic Cycle: Language Change and the Language Faculty

The Linguistic Cycle: Language Change and the Language Faculty

The Linguistic Cycle: Language Change and the Language Faculty

The Linguistic Cycle: Language Change and the Language Faculty


Elly van Gelderen provides examples of linguistic cycles from a number of languages and language families, along with an account of the linguistic cycle in terms of minimalist economy principles. A cycle involves grammaticalization from lexical to functional category followed by renewal. Some well-known cycles involve negatives, where full negative phrases are reanalyzed as words and affixes and are then renewed by full phrases again. Verbal agreement is another example: full pronouns are reanalyzed as agreement markers and are renewed again. Each chapter provides data on a separate cycle from a myriad of languages. Van Gelderen argues that the cross-linguistic similarities can be seen as Economy Principles present in the initial cognitive system or Universal Grammar. She further claims that some of the cycles can be used to classify a language as analytic or synthetic, and she provides insight into the shape of the earliest human language and how it evolved.


This book examines cyclical change and shows how that change provides a unique perspective on the language faculty. According to one definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, a cycle is a “period in which a certain round of events or phenomena is completed.” Toward the end of the cycle, similar events start again, but they are (slightly) different and happen at a different pace. the changes are therefore unidirectional.

With the exception of studying the negative cycle, generative linguists have not seriously examined the idea that language change is cyclical. However, the emphasis within the Minimalist Program on principles not specific to language, in conjunction with universal grammar, has prompted generative linguists to look for Economy Principles. I argue that cyclical change provides insight into the principles governing the language faculty: Economy Principles are the reason for linguistic cycles.

Early descriptions of cycles or cyclical change can be found in Condillac (1746), Tooke (1786–1805), Bopp (1816), and Humboldt ([1822] 1972) but, apart from work by Tauli (1958), Hodge (1970), Greenberg (1978), Givón (1978), and Katz (1996), not much recent research has been done on linguistic cycles. Thus, the current state of research is not much better than in 1972, when Robin Lakoffwrote that “there is no mechanism within the present theory of transformational grammar that would allow an explanation” (1972: 173–174). There is even outright rejection of the idea of linguistic cycles. For instance, Newmeyer (1998: 263–275, 2001) dismisses unidirectional change as does Lightfoot (e.g., 2006a: 38). Others, such as Traugott and Dasher (2002: 87), claim that the number of counterexamples to unidirectionality is small and not systematic. I take this approach and have not dealt with the occasional counterexample.

1. More work on the negative cycle has started to appear. For instance, in 2008 and 2009, one-day events on the
negative cycle took place in Birmingham.

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