Darwin-L Message Log 4:29 (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.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<4:29>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Thu Dec  9 12:06:11 1993

Date: Thu, 9 Dec 1993 09:53:02 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Re: extinction and speciation
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Wed, 8 Dec 1993, Tom Cravens wrote:

> 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).

Remember that linguistics lacks any correlate to the notion of fitness
in biological evolution.  We can characterize the function of some
syntactic developments, but not in terms that suggest why one
construction should be selected for over another.  (For phonological
change we can't even do that).  There are some teleological explanations
that are sometimes proferred for certain kinds of change--e.g. it
may be claimed that English developed fixed word order in order to
clarify subject and object relations that were obscured when case
marking, which used to indicate subject and object, was lost.  But
in many (at least) cases this kind of argument turns out to be
empirically untenable.

>"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.

This is really true only of phonological change, and conceivably even
there only because we don't understand phonology well enough to see
what's going on.  We're closer to being able to provide motivated
explanations for syntactic change, in the general line of certain
constructions being found useful for certain functions, and over time
adapting their form to these new functions.  Again, though, there is
only a very weak sense of "fitness" that can be invoked here, and at
its best the story still doesn't come out looking like the elegant
tales of adaptation that evolutionists can tell.

> 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).

Here is where we might go looking for an analogue to fitness.  The fly
in the linguistic ointment (as I think you are suggesting here) is the
sociological dimension, that communities may accept changes for
social reasons (prestige of the originators, perceived need to
distinguish one community or social group from another, etc.) that
have nothing to do with the structural nature or effects of the
change.  I can't imagine what a biological analogue of this could

Scott DeLancey			delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA

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