Darwin-L Message Log 5:179 (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.

<5:179>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Thu Jan 27 10:58:42 1994

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: History of "adaptation" in historical linguistics
Date: Thu, 27 Jan 94 12:05:53 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

   I didn't read email yesterday, so I'm sure I won't be the first
linguist to have the pleasure of responding to Bob O'Hara's question
about whether linguists ever made claims about particular languages
being adapted to their speakers and/or homelands, but I can't
resist commenting: the answer is emphatically yes, and the literature
on the subject is great fun to read.  A good source to start with
is Otto Jespersen's book LANGUAGE (1921, if I recall the date
correctly): Jespersen doesn't believe any of the wild old theories,
but he's close enough to them chronologically that he takes them
seriously enough to answer them.  When I have time (which I
usually don't, unfortunately), I go over some of his examples and
counterexamples in
my introductory historical linguistics class, in the section on
causation of sound change: The Germanic consonant shift (which
featured, among other changes, stops becoming fricatives --
p t k > f th x) happened because the Germanic peoples got weak
and soft and couldn't pronounce the harsh stops any more; the
High German Consonant Shift (which happened later, starting in
the south of German-speaking territory, where the mountains
are, and which featured partly similar changes) happened because
people got so out of breath running up mountains that they
couldn't get the complete stops right, and could only gasp out
fricatives; harsh climates breed harsh consonant systems (like
the Caucasus, with all those wild consonants) -- Jespersen
responds that Eskimo territory is pretty harsh in the climate,
but Eskimo has only quite gentle sounds; etc., etc.

   Then there was the very strong 19th-century view that a
really good language, like Latin or Greek or (especially, maybe)
Sanksrit, was a language with lots of inflectional endings;
the modern European languages, with their decayed inflectional
systems (compared, of course to highly inflected ancestors),
showed moral as well as linguistic decay.

   Those are probably the most famous sorts of claims.  The
reason there are more theories about causes of sound change
probably has to do with the fact that historical linguists
have always known a lot more about sound change than about
any other kind of linguistic change -- that's the area where
most of the data and most of the theory is.  (Of course there
is even more information, in a way, about lexical change, but
not a lot of theories.)  Another big category of speculation
doesn't pertain to linguists' speculation, but to laymen's:
the theories about what the world's oldest language is.  There
you get popular prejudices of various kinds about language --
e.g. Andreas Kemke's theory that, in the Garden of Eden, God
spoke Swedish (Kemke was a Swede), Adam spoke Danish, and the
serpent spoke French.

   Sally Thomason

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