Darwin-L Message Log 3:104 (November 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.

<3:104>From GA3704@SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU  Mon Nov 29 12:21:42 1993

Date: Mon, 29 Nov 93 12:03:41 CST
From: "Margaret E. Winters" <GA3704@SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: linguistic metaphors

I've just spent a very pleasant hour catching up on ten days worth
of Darwin-L (and putting off working on a paper!).  There were a
couple of postings on physical metaphors used in linguistics - and
particularly historical linguistics - that I would like to add to.

The term `polarity' has a couple of uses, both (come to think of
it) historical and non-), of which one is in terms of the influence
of negative (or affirmative) grammatical terms on the surrounding
sentence.  For example, the word `ever' is called a Negative Polarity
Item since it occurs with `not':
       He doen't ever let me know what he's doing
but not in an affirmative sentence
      *He ever lets me know...   (* for ungrammatical)
This is an over-simplification since such items often can occur as
well with conditionals:
       If he ever let me know...
certain words with negative semantics
       I'm sorry he ever got to do it
    but  *I'm glad he ever got to do it

It is also used historically to describe a situation in which
semantic opposites go through similar sound changes which are
regular for one of the items and very irregular for the other -
but occur there exactly because of the specific semantic relationship:
Latin CALIDUS lost the /i/ in the unstressed middle syllable in
what was a regular change (sorry - it means 'hot') while
its semantic opposite FRIGIDUS 'cold' also lost the /i/ in what
is an unusual context because of the nature of the surrounding
consonants.  At least in the area of Romance historical linguistics
this is called polarization (I think Y. Malkiel coined the usage).

In terms of force and momentum, the notion of Drift is indeed
very relevant.  It is not just a simple question of the spread
of a single lexical or grammatical item throughout a speech
community, however, but also the convergence, in a way, of a series
of grammatical changes which all result in one thing.  Sapir, who
wrote about it first, at least in 20th century linguistics, uses
the loss of case endings in English as a prime example, with one
longish section on WHOM becoming rarer and rarer - but within
the context of English becoming a language which marks meaning
through word order instead of case endings - unlike Old English or,
for that matter, modern German, which still has at least some
distinctive endings.

To respond to a recent question, I wouldn't use `imbalance' for
what is going on with they/them either for an inanimate or for
the third person singular to avoid gender - if anything it can
be seen as creating further imbalance (compared to the first person
where singular and plural are marked, although not compared to
the second person where they aren't).  On the other hand, the
use of `youze', `you all', `you guys' `you-uns', etc. are meant
to fix what would be called an imbalance in the pronoun system
where standard English doesn't mark singular versus plural in
the second person - but many speakers feel this as a problem and,
usually along regional lines, find a way of differentiating the

Enough - I'd better get back to my paper!
            Margaret Winters

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