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Darwin-L Message Log 3:81 (November 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.


<3:81>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Sat Nov 20 18:46:39 1993

Date: Sat, 20 Nov 93 18:48 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Physical metaphors in linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

	I think the primary use of physical metaphors in linguistics comes from
an assumption that language (an animated abstract) tries to preserve a uniform
contour or density. If you check back to early messages on this list you will
find, I think, descriptions of language changing to correct an "imbalance" or
to fill a "gap".
	The principle "natura abhorret vacuum" may not arise from physics (I
know it as a line from Spinoza and I'm sure there are biological parallels),
but it does easily lead to other physical metaphors. In Linguistics, the
analysis of language as a system led to the study of different "functions"
within the system (Jakobson, who also uses the language of "poles" in poetics,
and members of the Prague School who study phonological features which have
positive or negative valences, as it were). In particular, I think of a man in
this tradition named Andre' Martinet who taught in Paris and then at Columbia.
Instead of the teleological terms familiar to the Prague School he describes
the tendency of language change to strive toward economy in reconciling two
opposite needs: toward efficiency in communication (as many units as possible,
as different from each other as possible) and minimum effort (as few units as
possible, as similar as possible). Success is measured in terms of distributing
functional yield or functional "load". This doesn't involve very fancy physics
but does use the language of mechanics.
	The best place to go might be Martinet's 1955 _Economies des changements
phonetiques_. In it he describes the "pressure" in the "chain" for maximum
differentiation and "equidistance". Remember that the physiological basis of
the production of sounds inherently involves motor movements which have energy,
frequency, height,vibration,inertia andother elements of physics. So within the
system (or the map of the physical mouth or other features) we can have "empty
holes" which are likely to be filled by new phonemes or whatever. Martinet
later went on to apply this to syntax as well. Chains can push or pull.
	In semantics, there is similarly talk of forming and filling vacuums
(or will you allow me vacua?). I note Geoffrey Hughes (_Words in Time_, 1988,
p. 12):
	"Certain areas of the vocabulary perennially generate specialization. As
the explicit terms for sexual activity become unacceptable and then taboo,
numerous general latinized words were drawn into the 'semantic vacuum'. Among
them were *rape* (1482), *consummation* (1530), *seduce* (1560), *erection*
(1594), . . . *orgasm* (1684), *intercourse* (1798), *climax* (1918),
*ejaculation* (1927)...."
	The idealized distribution of meanings (into which vacuums come and go)
was even measured by the psychologist G. K. Zipf. Perhaps not surpringly "the
different meanings of a word will tend to be equal to the square root of its
relative frequency" (1945 article in Journal of Gen. Psychology).

Jeffrey Wills
wills@macc.wisc.edu
Univ.of Wisc.-Madison

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