Darwin-L Message Log 1:276 (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.

<1:276>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Thu Sep 30 17:56:03 1993

To: Gregory Mayer <mayerg@cs.uwp.edu>
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
Date: Thu, 30 Sep 93 18:58:27 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

 What historical linguists mean by "structural imbalances" is
parts of the system that are irregular and therefore harder to
learn than regular things.  The rubric can (with some
stretching) be extended to cover *all* things that are relatively
hard to learn, but the real meaning has to do with irregularities
-- patterns with gaps, patterns with exceptions, that sort of
thing.  I was using it in a pretty casual way, to avoid giving
lists of the kinds of things that are hard to learn; sorry to
be obscure.  Maybe an example will help clarify the notion.

  For instance: In Serbo-Croatian (a Slavic language, the major
language of ex-Yugoslavia), a few hundred years ago, two vowels
merged into one, pronounced [i] (= the vowel in English _beet_).
But this merger caused problems in the system of noun declension,
because a previously regular rule that turned (for instance)
[k] into a [ts] sound originally applied before only one of
the vowels that merged; after the merger, [k]'s appearing before
the [i]'s that used to trigger the [k] --> [ts] rule still turned
to [ts], but [k]'s appearing before the vowel that originally did
NOT trigger the rule remained [k].  If a noun stem ended in [k],
speakers had to remember which particular suffixes beginning in
[i] triggered the rule and which ones didn't.  That's an imbalance
in the system.  So what happened?  Different dialects of the
language did different things: (a) Some dialects just lost the
rule, so that all [k]'s remained [k] before all [i]'s; (b)
some dialects kept the old rule, so speakers had to memorize the
particular suffixes beginning in [i] that triggered the rule;
(c) some dialects extended the rule to apply before *all* [i]'s,
both the [i]'s that had originally triggered the process and
the [i]'s from an original vowel that did not trigger the process.
These constituted other imbalances (well, the same imbalance, in
the case of (b)).  For instance, the (c) case fixed the noun
declensional system, but introduced a discrepancy between noun
declension and verb declension, where the [k] --> [ts] rule still
occurred before certain suffixes.

 Language is, according to a popular truism, a system of systems,
and all these systems interact in complex ways.  So (another truism!)
a change that regularizes one (part of one) subsystem is all too
likely to complicate some part of the same or another subsystem.
What you find, therefore, is a never-ending process of change,
fixing up a glitch here only to introduce a glitch there.  Historical
linguists aren't likely to find a punctuated equilibrium approach
useful for the study of language change, in other words: no
equilibrium.  (And that in itself, come to think of it, makes our
discipline unhospitable to the notion of a just-right adaptation
to a just-right environment, even if we could decide what we mean
by "environment".)

 Sally Thomason

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