Darwin-L Message Log 4:48 (December 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.

<4:48>From simon@ling.edinburgh.ac.uk  Mon Dec 13 12:12:36 1993

Date: Mon, 13 Dec 93 17:58:53 GMT
From: Simon Kirby <simon@ling.edinburgh.ac.uk>
Subject: Re: `fitness' in linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organisation: Department of Linguistics, Edinburgh.

I am a recent subscriber to Darwin and have been fascinated by the
discussion following Diane's comment on extinction. Before I make a couple
of comments on the notion of `fitness' in linguistics I should say that
I am a PhD student in Linguistics currently working on explanations for
language universals and markedness. To this end I have been experimenting
with some (not very formal) computer simulations of selection-type models
of change.

On 9 Dec, Scott DeLancey wrote:

> Remember that linguistics lacks any correlate to the notion of fitness
> in biological evolution.  We can characterize the function of some
> syntactic developments, but not in terms that suggest why one
> construction should be selected for over another.

Jack Hawkins' recent work on a performance explanation for word order
universals seems to be based on some notion of fitness (though he does
not couch it in these terms himself). He claims that the effort of
processing an utterance may be predicted in part from the order of
constituents within the utterance.

Hawkins gives a simple metric derived from models of human processing
that can be used to predict the relative complexity of processing
various word orders. There is evidence that the basic word orders of
the world's languages tend to be the ones that are the least complex
to process by this metric.

Could this metric be counted as a `measure of fitness'? The kind of
scenario I envisage is one in which synchronic variants, varying only
with respect to word order, co-exist in some speech community. In some
sense these variants `compete' in that their survival diachronically
relies on them being uttered, understood and, ultimately, acquired.
This survival, then, is related to the processing effort that one
variant exacts relative to the other.

Simon Kirby --- Department of Linguistics, Edinburgh University


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