Darwin-L Message Log 1:264 (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.

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<1:264>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Wed Sep 29 19:58:11 1993

Date: Wed, 29 Sep 93 20:01 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: synchrony and diachrony in language
To: DARWIN-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

A footnote to Keith Miller's response to David Wigtil is that although
linguists do make a distinction between synchrony and diachrony, we often
lose track of the elemental observation that synchrony is a convenient
(some would say inconvenient) fiction which obscures the fact that we all
live in time, and that language, even at the level of the individual, but
most certainly at the societal level, is in continuous flux.

Phonetically-conditioned allophony (different realizations of the
psychologically "same sound"; compare the pronunciations of "key" and
"coat", with much more aspiration in the first) are unremarkable,
phonetically predictable and banal, in themselves, but can lead to
change over time. Compare Italian cento (with "ch"), and coda (with
"k"); both started out as sort of "k", but heavy aspiration and further
development of the first led to a restructuring. Cento is no longer
"kento" which happens to have the pronunciation "ch"--like key which
happens to have a pronunciation with heavy aspiration, but "chento".
This is the sort of common development that Sally Thomason refers to.

Variation need not lead to phonological restructuring to be of interest,
though. Beginning mostly with the work of William Labov, sociolinguists
have revealed, amongst other things, that what might appear at first
glance to be incoherent or random variation can be (not necessarily is)
evidence of realignments of variation along social lines (gender and
socioeconomic level most saliently), which appears in the long run to
evidence language change. A brief example:

In Central Tuscany, stereotypically centered on Florence, /k/
between vowels is pronounced [h], so 'la coca cola' is [la hoha hola],
'la casa' "the house" is [la hasa]. If a consonant precedes, the
pronunciation is [k]: 'in casa' has [k], not [h]. This appears to have been
spreading out from Florence since at least the 1500s. In the eastern
periphery of the region, this appears to be an innovation. Reports from
past decades say it didn't exist, but today it does, in variation with
[k], and native [g]. Recordings of speakers of different ages and
status show that young people use it more than older people, and
amongst the young, white-collar males are in the vanguard in the
use of [h] and blue-collar females use it least. The interpretation,
in a nutshell, is that the [h] pronunciation isn't random at all in
Eastern Tuscany, and isn't *just* variation. The distribution suggests
a change in progress, in competition with high prestige [k] and low
prestige [g], along fairly clear gender and class lines.

Certainly not all variation is of this sort, but it's beginning to appear
that more of it is than once thought. If there's a relevant point here
to the recent thread of discussion, it might be that there does appear to be
a culturally-conditioned selection in at least some of linguistic change.

End of footnote, with apologies if otiose.

Tom Cravens
Dept of French and Italian
University of Wisconsin-Madison


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