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Darwin-L Message Log 1:259 (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.


<1:259>From millerk@starbase.mitre.org  Wed Sep 29 14:53:45 1993

Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1993 15:56:59 -0400
From: Keith Miller <millerk@starbase.mitre.org>
To: wigtil@oerhp01.er.doe.gov
Subject: Re: drift

> On Wed, 29 Sep 1993 10:46:03 -0500, David Wigtil <wigtil@oerhp01.er.doe.gov>
said:

 David> One item that needs to be noted here is the
 David> wide variability of linguistic forms within
 David> a single community and even within a single
 David> speaker, the phenomenon of allophones and of
 David> alternative syntactic/morphological patterns.
 David> If I pronounce the phoneme /k/ sometimes as
 David> a palatal stop (or is the term apical? anyway,
 David> positioned where French positions its
 David> -gn- nasal),

That would be palatal (an apical /k/ would be an evolutionary step, indeed).

 David> sometimes as a velar, sometimes
 David> virtually as a guttural, or if I occasionally
 David> neglect to aspirate it, or if I sometimes
 David> release it in word-final position and
 David> sometimes do not release it, then these varia-
 David> tions might be viewed as the neutral changes
 David> of linguistic evolution, might they not?

I wouldn't label these as linguistic evolution at all, but rather as
linguistic variation.  Linguists distinguish betweeh synchronic (the
examples that you just presented) and diachronic (historical/evolutionary)
variation.  Actually, the example you present might not even be classified as
synchronic variation (except for the released/unreleased distinction), simply
because the variants of /k/ you mention are phonologically conditioned.  That
is, they are not in a state of flux, and do not vary greatly (in principle)
from speaker to speaker.  For example, the /k/ in /kiwi/ will be slightly
advanced toward the palate, whereas the /k/ in /kuku/, `cukoo', would be
velar.  (Most English speakers, of course, do not realize this, because
both are allophones of what we perceive to be the same phoneme /k/.**)  To
consciously try to pronounce these /k/'s otherwise would prove a great effort,
and unconscious switching is unlikely to occur, except in the case of a
performance error.  Thus, the various forms of /k/ do not show dialectal
variation, nor do they show variation within the speakers ideolect.  They
merely show differences in phonological conditioning environments.  I have the
same argument for aspiration -- it is not a conscious choice, and many English
speakers, even when pressed in foreign language classes, find it extremely
difficult to produce _unaspirated_ voiceless stops.  I doubt that pronuncitaion
of an unaspirated /k/ would be a possibility for many English speakers, even by
hazard (unless we are again talking about language contact, in which case the
story would change a little.)

(** To say that velar and palatal /k/ are allophones of the same phoneme
basically means that English has no words that are distinguished only by the
fact that one has a velar /k/ while the other has a palatal /k/.)

 David> Similarly, the alternation in German of
 David> subject-object-verb word order in indirect
 David> statement with subject-verb-object order, or
 David> the English use of both S-V-IO-DO order and
 David> S-V-DO-prepositional phrase to denote the
 David> indirect object, are these part of the drift
 David> of language change,

These, I would say are part of the drift, as was suggested by an earlier poster
(sorry, I've already archived the message).

 David> or are they only some of
 David> the causative factors of historically observ-
 David> able drift?
 David> I suspect that it is too easy to assign an
 David> existence as independent as a biological
 David> organism to a "language", when the latter is
 David> a far less identifiable entity, qua entity.
 David> --DNW

              -----  Keith J. Miller
              millerk@guvax.georgetown.edu
              millerk@starbase.mitre.org

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