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Darwin-L Message Log 1:274 (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.


<1:274>From PICARD@Vax2.Concordia.CA  Thu Sep 30 15:03:44 1993

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 15:57:50 -0500 (EST)
From: MARC PICARD <PICARD@Vax2.Concordia.CA>
Subject: Biological and linguistic change
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

   There were two things in Kent Holsinger's comment that struck me in tems
of a parallel between linguistic change and biological change.The first has to
do with "efficient solutions to a similar problem".  Taking the case of phono-
logical change (phonologists tend to do that), we find that much of it can be
attributed to this concept. Many, if not most sound changes, are context-
sensitive in the sense that X>Y will not occur everywhere (i.e. context-free)
but only in specific contexts. In turn, many of these will result from a
tendency on the part of all speakers to make contiguous or adjacent sounds
more similar to each other.
    Here's an example. In any language that has CONSONANT-VOWEL-CONSONANT
(CVC) sequences, e.g. /ata/, /apa/, /aka/, there exists the potential for a
change to /ada/, /aba/, /aga/ respectively. The reason is that in the former,
the consonants are voiceless (no vibration of the vocal cords) while vowels are
intrinsically voiced.  Thus, the speaker has to make an intervocalic voicing
adjustment. By pronouncing /b d g/ instead of /p t k/, however, no such change
in vocal cord vibration is necessary.
    What we find in the study of phonological change, then, are a certain
number of scenarios of this type which yield identical or similar results in
language after language. A particular change never HAS to take place but if
linguist A tells linguist B that language X has undergone a change like inter-
vocalic voicing, then B will have no trouble believing it.  However, if A tells
B that language Y has change /w/ to /s/ before the vowels /i o/, then B will
have every reason to be suspicious. There is just no conceivable phonetic
reason for this to occur.
    Which brings me to Holsinger's second comment, viz. that in biology
recently "explanations have often been sought in terms of internal constraints
that limit the possible solutions". There is an exact parallel in sound change
for it is imperative that we find as many conditions and constraints on phono-
logical change as possible if we hope to reconstruct the phonological histories
of unrecorded languages (or even unrecorded stages of recorded lanhguages).
    In sum, if the forces that govern sound change are ease of articulation
and ease of perception, as they seem to be, one should not think in terms of
the sounds themselves so much as in terms of what preceded and/or follows them
in the speech chain. In regular sound change, expediency is the name of the
game.  The human vocal apparatus prefers certain combinations of sounds, and
that's what speakers unconsciously strive for. However, in changing one thing,
another undesirable sequence may (and often does) arise which will need to be
"repaired", and so on ad infinitum. I don't think historical linguists will
ever be out of work.

Marc Picard

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