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Darwin-L Message Log 5:90 (January 1994)

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.


<5:90>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Mon Jan 17 21:26:54 1994

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Systematics and linguistics
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 94 22:29:59 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

John Limber raises some interesting points wrt Scott DeLancey's
claim that "There is no imaginable process that would produce
convergence in vocabularies", but these points don't affect
the validity of Scott's claim.  Since a language is likely to
have 20 or 30 phonemes (or more), favoring simple forms over
complex ones or having shorter forms for more frequent concepts
won't produce enough chance similarities to make any difference:
the combinatory possibilities for 20 or 30 phonemes will be too
great, even after you build in sequencing constraints (on
consonant clusters and vowel sequences, for instance), in words
of typical lengths -- at least 3 phonemes long, say.  (Note too
that acquisition processes can't favor simple forms over complex
ones all the time, or words would simplify into minimality, which
they clearly don't, in ANY language; only grammatical items
like prepositions and other such particles are very likely to get
reduced.  Lexical items, such as nouns and verbs, are
more likely to be stressed, and stress tends to protect a word
from drastic phonetic reduction.)  Phonetic symbolism is another
matter: most linguists would agree that you might find occasional
convergences due to sound symbolism.  But the overall effect on
the vocabulary from such a process will be slight: examples aren't
all that easy to find, and the prospect of significant overhaul
of any language's vocabulary through such a process is, well,
unimaginable (in the real world of human language).

   Limber is right, however, to point to the slipperiness of
the notion of "chance".  Non-historically-connected
similarities in parts of words, at least, do occur in quantities
that make randomness unlikely.  For instance, many languages
have no syllables (and therefore no words) ending in consonants;
every syllable ends in a vowel.  Tongue-tip sounds like t d n r
are very frequent at the ends of words, in a wide variety of
unrelated languages, and they turn up in grammatical suffixes
(e.g. case endings on nouns, person/number endings on verbs) in
so many languages that one might suspect them of being historically
stable, relatively speaking, in that position.  Many languages
lack consonant clusters, and those that have them are most likely
to have only clusters like pr-, gl-, ty-, and the like, rather than
"heavy" clusters like st-, tk-, etc.  Tendencies like these cause
linguists to think in terms like ease of pronunciation, and ease of
learning more generally, in the search for explanations.  But again,
they don't justify any prediction about general vocabulary
convergence, because there is no evidence at all that such a thing
occurs, except -- in a sense -- through borrowing, and that
isn't what evolutionary biologists mean by "convergence".

   Sally Thomason
   sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu

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