An interview with Peter Trudgill

Peter Trudgill, FBA, is one of the world’s best-known sociolinguists and dialect experts.  I interviewed him ahead of the publication of his latest Cambridge book, ‘Millennia of Language Change: Sociolinguistic Studies in Deep Historical Linguistics’.

Can you tell us about ‘Millennia of Language Change’?

Millennia of Language Change takes a (very) long view of important historical sociolinguistic developments which occurred during the thousands of years stretching from the Old Stone Age, through the Neolithic era and the Classical Age, and on to the Early Middle Ages, concentrating on processes involved in long-term linguistic change and long-distance migration and contact, with examples from a wide range of – in particular – European, Pacific Ocean and native North American languages.

What new things are we going to learn about language change, from your book?

In Ancient Greek, verbs could have more than 275 different forms. The West Greenlandic language has about a thousand different verbal affixes. These two languages came into being in very different communities, in very different parts of the world, but they have in common the fact that they are extraordinarily complex. One of the things which Millenia of Language Change considers is how many thousands of years it takes for such complexity to develop – and what linguistic processes might be involved.

Can you give us a brief overview of the topics the book will cover?

Major themes which are covered in the book include linguistic complexification; linguistic simplification; substrate theory; migration and conquest; geographical diffusion; koinéisation; and transitivity of contact. An example of “transitivity of contact” would be that, if the Brittonic Celtic precursor to Welsh was infuenced by contact with the Late-Latin/Northwestern Romance of the Roman provinces of Brittania and Gallia; and if Old English was subsequently influenced by contact with Brittonic Celtic; then some aspects of the structure of the Old English language might be due to the indirect influence of Northwestern Romance.

Who will benefit from reading this book?

The book will be of particular interest to academic linguists and graduate students in all parts of the world – the text takes examples from a very wide range of languages and linguistic areas – who are concerned with the great puzzles presented by linguistic change; the big challenges of historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and historical sociolinguistics; the important insights provided by dialectology and variationist linguistics; the complexities involved in the investigation of language contact; and with the relevance to all these topics of work in linguistic typology.

What are the key benefits that the reader will take from reading it?

All of the papers which make up this book were originally published between 2004 and 2018 in – in some cases rather obscure – festschrifts, conference proceedings, handbooks, and journals. Millennia of Language Change now makes available some of my most important and innovative pieces, freshly revised and updated, and centring as a coherent whole around the big-picture theme of deep historical-sociolinguistics.

‘Millennia of Language Change: Sociolinguistic Studies in Deep Historical Linguistics’ is due to be published in April, and is available for pre-order.

Helen Barton
Commissioning Editor, Language and Linguistics
Cambridge University Press

Peter Trudgill has also featured in The Linguist List Famous Linguists, read the full entry here.

Image credit: The Academy of Europe

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