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Language Acquisition and Change

A Morphosyntactic Perspective

Jurgen M Meisel, Martin Elsig, Esther Rinke

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Historical linguistics commonly invokes the child as the principal agent of change. Using this as a starting point, the authors address diachronic language change against a background of insights gained from extensive research into mono- and bilingual language acquisition. The evidence shows that children are remarkably successful in reconstructing the grammars of their ambient languages so the authors reconsider a number of commonly held explanatory models of language change, including language contact and structural ambiguity in the input. Based on a variety of case studies, this innovative take on the subject argues that morphosyntactic change in core areas of grammar typically happens in settings involving second language acquisition. Here, the children acting as causal agents of restructuring are either second language learners or are continuously exposed to the speech of second language speakers. The authors answer questions about the circumstances surrounding grammatical change in terms of a restructuring of speakers' internal grammatical knowledge constructing a general theory of diachronic change consistent with insights from language acquisition.

About the Author

Jürgen M. Meisel is Emeritus Professor of Romance Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Distinguished Fellow in the Language Research Centre at the University of Calgary. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University. He directed the Research Center on Multilingualism (Hamburg) from 1999 through 2006, and he is founding editor of the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

Dr Martin Elsig is Research Assistant in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. His research interests are in language variation and change with a particular focus on the morphosyntax of French and Spanish.

Esther Rinke is Professor of Iberoromance Linguistics at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. Her research covers Romance linguistics, diachronic syntax, language contact and multilingualism.


The claim that language acquisition is responsible for change is often not much more than a theoretical slogan. This book takes this claim seriously and convincingly confronts language change with recent findings from L1 and L2 acquisition, leading to an important reconsideration of the role of both.

- Fred Weerman, University of Amsterdam