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Darwin-L Message Log 7:75 (March 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.


<7:75>From margaret@ling.edinburgh.ac.uk  Mon Mar 21 06:31:59 1994

From: Margaret Winters <margaret@ling.edinburgh.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 21 Mar 94 11:47:01 GMT
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: trees, historical linguistics and gradualness

Tom Cravens sums up very correctly the very limited use of trees
in historical linguistics (tree diagrams, that is - real tree
species is an entirely different question).  When we are talking
about specific linguistic units, however, and especially sounds,
this question of gradualness versus abruptness seems to me to
take on another dimension.  For many versions of the phoneme
(contrastive units of sounds within a given language), they can
either exist or not exist, but cannot be only partially in
existence, virtually by definition.  This is different from the
sounds of languages which change, according to evidence from
speech variation within a community in particular, very gradually,
with variation across lexical items, social register (formal versus
informal speech, etc.) and other factors.  What this comes to
(again by my interpretation which is certainly open to argument)
is that Tom's image of a continuum is very true for sound change,
especially if we abstract away from any sense of a straight line,
but is not true for structural change where we look at the
significant units, phonemes.  And phonemes by most accounts are
not just useful inventions of linguists to talk about organization
of language, but exist in psychologically real ways as human mental
categories.  A long introduction to a short question: do other kinds
of history (and specifically the history of species) make the same
differentiation between gradualness and abrupt change?

Margaret Winters
<margaret@ling.ed.ac.uk>

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