Does historical linguistics need the Cognitive Commitment? Prosodic change in East Slavic
On the basis of a case study of the so-called jer shift in Slavic, I argue that the Cognitive Commitment is essential for an adequate analysis of language change. While the “social turn” and the “quantitative turn” open up important perspectives and provide new opportunities for cognitive historical linguistics, the Cognitive Commitment remains essential because it facilitates elegant and insightful analyses and paves the way for more general hypotheses about language change. The jer shift is a prosodic change that originated in Late Common Slavic and spread to Old East Slavic in the twelfth century. This sound change involved the lax vowels /ĭ, ŭ/ (often referred to as jers or yers), which either disappeared or merged with /e, o/ depending on the prosodic environment. Contrary to traditional practice, I argue that the jer shift should be analyzed in terms of trochaic feet, i. e., rhythmic groups of two syllables, where the leftmost syllable is prominent. This account is psychologically realistic, as dictated by the Cognitive Commitment, since rhythmic grouping is a fundamental property of human cognition (Nathan 2015. Phonology. In Ewa Dąbrowska & Dagmar Divjak (eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics, 253–273. Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter Mouton and Ding et al. 2016. Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech. Nature Neuroscience 19. 158–164). While the Cognitive Commitment is essential for historical linguistics, one important limitation deserves mention. Historical changes such as the jer shift can be represented as “sound laws”, i.e., statements that summarize changes that span over many generations. Such statements are not about processes in the minds of individual speakers or speech communities at any point in time. They are therefore not directly relevant for the Cognitive Commitment, but are nevertheless among the most valuable tools historical linguists have at their disposal.
Published version. Source at http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/cog-2016-0026