Darwin-L Message Log 1:236 (September 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.

<1:236>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Tue Sep 28 15:38:43 1993

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution
Date: Tue, 28 Sep 93 16:42:17 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

John Langdon says that "there is no directionality" to a linguistic
change -- "no correlation between a change in language and its
tendency to be generally adopted or lost".  I'm not entirely sure
what he has in mind, so if I guess wrong I hope he'll set me
straight.  There *is* directionality in linguistic change, especially
in sound change, which is regular and not generally subject to
speakers' whims.  Sound changes are irreversible.  If two sounds
merge completely, for instance, the merger can never be reversed.
And it is possible in many cases to say with confidence that X may
turn to Y, but not vice versa.  Language change is unpredictable,
but it isn't random: it happens as a result of pattern pressures
of various kinds (because certain kinds of things are harder to
learn and/or perceive than others), with or without influence from
a foreign language.

Overall, there is probably a better analogy between language change
and natural selection than between language change and genetic drift,
which (if what I've heard is right -- it's not my field) is supposed
to be truly random.  I know of no evidence that population size affects
the rate of linguistic change, except in relatively minor ways (e.g.
when a taboo system causes rapid vocabulary replacement).

But the analogy between the causes of linguistic
change and natural selection doesn't go all that far, in part because
the specific causes of linguistic change aren't all that well
understood (historical linguists don't claim to predict changes in a
strong sense; often even the most natural and common changes fail to
occur).  Of course, if Philip Kitcher is right (in his book Vaulting
Ambition), the number of really well-established demonstrations of
the operation of natural selection in specific cases isn't all that
large, either.  In any case, the methodologies of historical linguistics
and evolutionary biology show a lot of similarities -- more, I suspect,
than the methodologies of hist. ling. and other aspects of human

  Sally Thomason

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