On working with deceased coauthors

I’m in the final stages of corrections and updates to Terry Crowley’s Introduction to Historical Linguistics. It’ll be the fourth edition of this book, which first appeared in 1981. That was the year I started preschool. The first Oxford University press edition was 1992, and the third edition was reprinted three times.

This edition has quite a few changes. I have overhauled to the reading list at the end of each chapter, I have added some new data sets, and added new sections and expanded existing ones on morphological and syntactic change. I have largely kept the focus on Austronesian and Australian languages while also taking examples from languages elsewhere in the world. This was the textbook I used when I was an undergrad first starting on historical linguistics so I have a soft spot for it, but some parts were rather dated.

I did not think this would be a particularly easy job, but it has turned out to have been difficult in unexpected ways. I thought the most difficult part would be to write the new sections. Historical linguistics can be a technical field and students who are not familiar with thinking about things from the diachronic point of view often find it very confusing.

That turned out to be the easy part. I just pretend I’m lecturing, I remove the hesitations and repetitions, and Bob is your proverbial uncle. This turns out to be especially easy with voice recognition.

The difficult parts have been in two areas. The first is that Terry’s and my writing styles are rather different from one another. He uses much more clefting than I do, more modifiers, and his way of introducing an argument is a little different. Therefore there has been a bit of a temptation to rewrite, which I shouldn’t do without a good reason. After all, this is a new edition of an existing book and not a knock off new one. I think I really underestimated how much of an issue this would be when the writing by the coauthors isn’t happening simultaneously.

That brings me to the second issue, changing content. There are some things in this book that I fundamentally disagree with. Some of them are pretty minor, but others are pretty important to linguistics at a basic level. One of the minor things is the discrepancy between the data I can find on some of the languages quoted and what’s in the book. It’s not always possible to go back to the original source that Terry used (since the source seems to have been his brain, and it was a very good brain). There are more serious things. For example, I have argued in several places that areal linguistics does not constitute the failure of the comparative method. On the contrary: the comparative method allows us to identify areal phenomena and to study them. I also disagree about the place of the family tree model as a European construct. I see it as essentially a representational question, with a bunch of languages which fall outside that type of representation. But saying that creoles can’t be modelled on a family tree says nothing more than that: that some representations are appropriate for some types of descent relationship. It doesn’t say anything about the politics of these languages, of the worth of studying them, or about the appropriateness of family trees for languages which appear to be modelled well by them.

I suspect that this view is rather more recent than the first edition of this book. There may well have been reasons to argue over the family tree model in the way it is presented here. It may be an accident of the presentation. Terry was an extremely smart guy with an incredible intuition. Not being able to discuss the changes has turned out to cause more angst on my part than any of the other issues. Which is ironic, because if I could discuss them with him I would not be preparing this new edition at all.

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5 responses to “On working with deceased coauthors

  1. I’m so very glad that this text will be updated – it’s my favorite intro to linguistics texts. One of the things I really loved was how all the examples were NOT taken from the large collection of boring old English/Romance languages examples that everybody seems to use. Crowley was also great at amusing examples – from memory that book includes example phrases like “would you like a beer?”, “who burnt this house down?” etc.

    I also agree about your points about family trees (although I admit that I am biased here!). Much of the discussion in linguistics about trees has revolved between “not appropriate” and “always appropriate”. Even when people pretend to discuss these issues fairly, they seem to cherry pick a few examples of creolisation or major blending, and wave their hands about how *complex* things are.

    The debate should be focusing on questions like when are trees useful, when are they not useful, what types of borrowing and situations are going to cause problems, and how can we deal with them. The best discussion of these issues I’ve seen in linguistics is a paper by Malcolm Ross in 1997 on “Social networks and kinds of speech-community events”. Malcolm talks about the different processes involved in the development of the Western Oceanic languages, and how these have lead to more-or-less tree-like subgroups.

    -Simon

  2. Well, it seems to me that one should be very reluctant to simply eliminate or change content that the original author wrote, except (maybe) where the data he used has since been definitely shown to be incorrect. Where it’s a matter of his interpretations and theoretical biases having been superceded (or where the reviser disagrees with them), I think they should be left in, but supplemented with comprehensive footnotes, or inserts in a different font, discussing and updating them. Don’t make invisible changes in anything of significance, or make it look like the original author said something he didn’t, and quite likely never would have.

    I realise this is a clumsy solution. especially for a book like this intended mainly to be used as a university text. Making unidentified reinterpretations in such isn’t as bad as bringing out an updated edition of a truly classical work like, say, “The Origin of Species” without highlighting the bits that don’t represent what Darwin actually thought when he wrote it. But still…

    John.

  3. but this isn’t the Origin of the Species. It’s an introductory text designed for use with students with no prior background in historical. Then there’s the question of what counts as significant. I replaced some examples because as far as I can see the data from that language are just wrong. (If you go by the orthography the example works but if you read the description in the grammar it’s clear that the orthography isn’t reflecting what’s actually spoken, so the claimed sound change didn’t happen.) That needs correcting, but it doesn’t need a song and dance about it. In fact, drawing attentions to it in the text of a book like this feels to me somewhat like coauthors having an argument in public. Should I footnote that I’ve replaced Lincoln’s 1976 list of Oceanic > Banoni reconstructions, which are Lincoln’s interpretation of Grace’s (1969), also using Dyen’s orthographic conventions for Dempwolff’s Proto-Austronesian reconstructions, and adaptations from Prentice (1974)?

    I believe that the 4th edition will show as being co-authored, so there’s the issue of what I am comfortable putting my name to as well! I am not comfortable signing off on a text that spends more time talking about glottochronology than historical morphology. But some sections have to be removed to make way for the new material, otherwise the book will be too long. The base text dates to about 1979, a long life for a textbook in any subject.

  4. @Claire: but this isn’t the Origin of the Species. It’s an introductory text designed for use with students with no prior background in historical.

    Sure, I already made that point.

    @Claire: Then there’s the question of what counts as significant. [example omitted]

    Yes, that’s the tricky thing!

    @Claire: In fact, drawing attentions to it in the text of a book like this feels to me somewhat like coauthors having an argument in public.

    Nothing wrong with that, in principle! Though, as you say, perhaps not in this particular case, if it’s so obvious that the original data was wrongly interpreted.

    @Claire: I believe that the 4th edition will show as being co-authored, so there’s the issue of what I am comfortable putting my name to as well!

    No problem, if you make it clear which bits you’re _not_ signing off on.

    @Claire: I am not comfortable signing off on a text that spends more time talking about glottochronology than historical morphology.

    Yes, those arguments about glotto. are certainly old hat by now. Mention it, but don’t waste more than a page or so on it. But (IMO) do say “In earlier editions, the author discussed this in more detail, but …”

    @Claire: But some sections have to be removed to make way for the new material, otherwise the book will be too long.

    Yeah, always a problem with revised editions (even when the original author’s still alive!). They grow and grow…

    John.

  5. David Marjanović

    What about writing some kind of foreword explaining what you changed and why?

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