Darwin-L Message Log 4:26 (December 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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<4:26>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Wed Dec  8 20:06:13 1993

Date: Wed, 08 Dec 93 20:08 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: extinction and speciation
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

In response to various postings:

One of the major distinctions between evolutionary biology
and historical linguistics appears to be that in the latter field, most
people would shy away from notions of teleology of purpose (and even of
function). "Drift" -- which is so vague as to not be employed as more
than a cover term in my experience -- does indeed refer to the strong
current, or momentum, but while it has its internal motivations, it does
not have a goal. In the extreme reading, then, the vast majority of
linguistic changes are random and non-directed. I should point out that
this refers to *systematic* changes, such as the incipience and spread of a
[d] pronunciation of /t/ under defined circumstances. These appear to be
pushed forward by the collective momentum of the community of speakers,
blind to any unfortunate results (waiter and wader sounding the same, etc.).
When real problems occur, it is not the system that adjusts, but individual
items, as necessary. A vulgar but clear example is the past of the verb
"shut", which came out in normal phonological evolution as "shit". As the
noun suffered pejoration (folks decided it was a naughty word), it appears
that the variant "shut" from other dialects was selected to replace it.
The point here (if there is one; I feel I'm rambling) is that in one sense
all linguistic systematic change is random, if that means non goal-oriented.

If, however, we recognize that any language state is a result of earlier
language states, and that there is really no such thing as stasis, but only
constant becoming (Henning Andersen's words, more or less), then we find that
much (most? all????!!!) linguistic change is weakly predetermined (i.e. not
the precise result, but that change will very likely occur in environment x).
The Latin-to-Spanish example may serve to illustrate. Whether the cause is
to be found in the languages spoken by Iberians or in Latin itself is a
hot topic (although it's beginning to look to many like the latter), but
the fact is that from the pan-chronic view of Latin to modern varieties of
Spanish, consonants between vowels are reduced. Latin geminates simplify
(VACCA > vaca), Latin voiceless consonants voice (AMICU > amigo), and
Latin voiced consonants are lost (LEGO > leo). Nowadays, the secondary
voiced consonants are being lost, and in a few varieties, most notably
Canary Islands, the voiceless consonants which derive historically from
voiceless geminates are being voiced ([g] in vaca). Hispanists don't
speak in these terms, but this may be said to be a sort of drift. What would
surprise an experienced Hispanist, I think, would be reports of systematic
movement in the opposite direction. The movement is in the direction of
consonant reduction bewteen vowels (and elsewhere; just listen to Puerto

In sum: systematically speaking, all change is random in that there is no
"good reason" why it should come about, yet it is necessarily (banally, in
some sense) determined by the currents already in force when any individual
speaker comes on the scene and has to deal with what's presented to her/him.
And--a crucial difference vis-a`-vis biology I would think--the change doesn't
stick unless the community accepts it (see James Milroy's new book, Language
variation and change).

One last word. Linguists, too, speak of extinct or dead languages for
convenience, even when it makes very little sense. As has been pointed out,
Latin didn't die; it just now has several names, and several different
varieties. As Roger Wright has observed on many occasions, it's really
in great part politico-historical accident that different names haven't
been established similarly for varieties of what are called English.

(I await the clarifications of Maggie, Scott, Sally, etc.)

Tom Cravens

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