Darwin-L Message Log 1:272 (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.

<1:272>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Thu Sep 30 13:54:45 1993

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 13:54:45 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Heritability and cultural evolution

In message <8322.749413671@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>  writes:

> Kent Holsinger asks if linguists regard ease-of-learning/perception
> as an internal constraint (or, rather, tendency, because there are
> always exceptions) or an externally imposed problem.  Certainly
> linguists' terminology differs from biologists' terminology here:
> for a historical linguist, internally-motivated/caused change is
> anything that comes from within the language & its speakers,
> including changes that arise in the acquisition process (first-language
> acquisition, that is); change that has to do with contact, whether
> between dialects of one language or between different languages, is
> externally-motivated change.  But I'm not sure what the implications
> of this terminological difference are, if any.

I raised the question of internal vs. external constraints earlier, making the
point that an analogy with natural selection requires a response to an external
constraint (i.e. directionality of change imposed from an external source). If
languages change because of an ease-of-learning constraint, I think this
constraint should be regarded as external to the languages themselves (since it
relates to the structure of the brain and not to any one language).

> you
> wouldn't, in principle, expect *any* internally-motivated change
> if you didn't have imbalances in the system.
>  But then, I guess this
> too resembles the situation in biological evolution?

I think there is an interesting biological analogy. I infer that the changes
for ease-of-learning would only account for a small proportion of language
changes and would not by themselves account for the actual divergence of
languages. Biologically, this would compare to fine-tuning by natural selection
(external constraint) of changes caused by genetic drift (operating from
internal constraints only).

This still leaves open the question of whether the macroevolutionary process of
languages has any component analogous to natural selection.

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