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Darwin-L Message Log 5:155 (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.


<5:155>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Wed Jan 26 16:19:08 1994

Date: Wed, 26 Jan 1994 17:29:23 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: History of "adaptation" in historical linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

A few days ago when we were teasing out some of the differing assumptions
that the historical linguists and the systematists among us have toward our
respective disciplines -- assumptions about monogenesis vs. polygenesis of
our objects of study and about the extent of reticulation, for example --
it became clear that the systematists worry a good deal about adaptive
convergence leading them astray, whereas the linguists are more worried about
borrowing (horizontal transmission), but not usually adaptive convergence.
They tend to assume, in other words, that similarities among languages that
are not inherited (either directly or via borrowing) must be the result of
chance convergence.  It was suggested that there might be some phonological
mechanisms that could produce convergence by some means other than chance, but
that these were probably not of major significance in the history of language.

Let me ask this historical question of the linguists: Were there any
historical linguists in the early days of the subject (William Jones, Parsons,
etc.) who did in fact claim that particular languages were actually "adapted"
to the regions they were spoken in?  In other words: it is best that people in
France speak French, because the French language is particularly well fitted
to the French climate; similarly, the Scandinavian languages are best suited
to people who live in cold northern regions, etc.  There are examples in the
natural theology literature of the 18th and 19th centuries where not only are
organisms said to be adapted to the environment but also the environment is
said to be adapted to the organisms through divine design.  Was there any
tradition of "linguistic theology" perhaps corresponding to natural theology
that made arguments like this with respect to languages?  If so, what led to
the rejection of the idea that particular languages were adapted to their
speakers and their speakers's homelands?

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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