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Darwin-L Message Log 1:221 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:221>From rh@dsd.camb.inmet.com  Mon Sep 27 11:50:56 1993

Date: Mon, 27 Sep 93 12:54:26 EDT
From: rh@dsd.camb.inmet.com (Rich Hilliard)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Language Change

Jeffery Wills writes:

> Another example: in the case of language change, I think we need some
> formalization of features or a way of expressing formally the system
> if we are to take full advantage of the biological parallels
> ("metaphors?") in the historical sciences. Language, of course,
> changes frequently within anyone's lifetime--it is not genetic
> transmission which is needed as a precondition. In fact the most
> intractable problem of language change (and perhaps all cultural
> change) is that the changes are so frequent (faster than a fruitfly)
> and our tracking of them is so infrequent and approximate that we lack
> the precision we need.

Work within generative grammar, just for example, focuses on
formalising a language's grammar in terms of linguistic
representations and rules acting on those representations in a fashion
that might offer a substrate for understanding language change
evolutionarily.

An interesting work in this regard is:

@Book{Lightfoot,
  author = "David Lightfoot",
  title = "How to set parameters: arguments from language change",
  publisher = "MIT Press",
  year = 1991,
  note = "P118 .L46 1991"

In particular, chapter [3?  -- sorry don't have the book around] is a
detailed study of the loss of a single grammatical construction,
object-verb order in English in contrast to its 'relatives' German,
Dutch, Scandinavian and ancestors.  Lightfoot uses Chomsky's
principles and parameters approach.
  VERY BRIEFLY: In this conception, human language is characterised in
terms of a system of grammatical principles and parameters.  The
principles are universal; languages' grammars vary in terms of their
particular 'settings' of parameters: whether pronouns may be null,
whether heads of phrases are phrase-inital or phrase-final, etc.
  One might argue that these parameters are the genetic material which
characterise a language and are susceptible to potential change
(mutation).  And, given the abstractness of the parameters, the change
of a single parameter value can have far-reaching effects on the
overall organisation of the language.
  Chomsky's most recent work -- so-called 'minimalism' -- is about the
relative effort/complexity of deriving linguistic representations.
One might speculate that such 'least-effort' considerations would have
a selective role to play in language evolution toward combinations of
parameter settings that allowed simpler derivations.  (Of course,
given the many imaginable dimensions of simplicity, grammars might be
in quite a lot of flux, never reaching a stable, simplest state.)

QUESTION for the historical linguists:
  I once read a paper by Robin Lakoff, "Another Look at Drift" which,
if I recall correctly [it was a LONG time ago], suggested that
language evolution, at least in the analytic/synthetic dimension was
cyclical, rather than linear or progressive.  What the status of ideas
like that?

 -- Rich Hilliard
  rh@dsd.camb.inmet.com

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