Darwin-L Message Log 4:60 (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.

<4:60>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Wed Dec 15 22:51:07 1993

Date: Wed, 15 Dec 93 22:53 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: fitness in linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

William Kimler asks

Are there enough universal patterns of linguistic change to find
something "below" historical circumstances and cultural choices?

If 'historical circumstances' refers to matters external to language,
the answer is most definitely yes. Basic to even the most socially
responsible historical linguistic research is the knowledge that there
are a number of universals and a number of pseudo-universals controlling
many aspects of language change. A universal would be that /n/ before
/p/ will be pronounced [m] (thus 'iMpossible' vs 'iNelegant'). A pseudo-
universal might be that consonants between vowels tend to weaken, rather
than strengthen, or that analytic constructions such as multi-word verbs
(Lat. CANTARE HABEO) tend to become synthetic, i.e. root plus morphemes
(It. cantero` 'I will/shall sing').

The metaphor of ecology is of interest here, I think, if we distinguish
between the ecology of the linguistic system(s) and the ecology of the
society in which the language is employed. The first determines the
types of mutations which are churned out constantly, the second (in very
vaguely characterizable terms) determines which of the mutations actually
will be incorporated permanently in the language in question. The first is
approachable, with lots of thorns and controversial theories. Research
on the social parameters of change suggests that acceptance is socially,
not linguistically, motivated.

Is this along the lines you meant, William?

Tom Cravens
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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