Darwin-L Message Log 4:49 (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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<4:49>From CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu  Mon Dec 13 20:46:26 1993

Date: Mon, 13 Dec 93 20:48 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <CRAVENS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Re: `fitness' in linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

The 'measure of fitness' view of linguistic change is intuitively appealing,
and examples which seem to evidence it can be found easily. But counter-
examples can be found easily, as well, if survival of the fittest here
means survival of the simplest. In morphological patterning, for example,
the more regular (i.e. simple) verbs are, the easier they are to learn,
presumably: walk-walk-walked (productive) or sing-sang-sung (not productive,
but symmetrical). But what to make of go-went-gone? In acquisition, children
regularize to go-goed-goed. Nice and simple, more fit than go-went-gone, but
it doesn't stick. Also: am-is-are/was/been. It can be argued that frequency
can account for maintenance of the complexities, but that begs the question,
doesn't it? Especially in the case of go-went, where what he have historically
is a blend of two verbs, go and wend.

A nice Italian example is the infinitive _bere_ 'drink',
the result of phonological erosion of earlier _bevere_. Forms other than
the infinitive retain the -v- (bevo 'I drink', bevvi 'I drank', bevuto [past
participle], etc.). Again, children regularize the infinitive, e.g. "Mamma,
voglio bevere" 'Mom, I want to drink'. The odd infinitive is the only form
standing in the way of a nicely regular matrix of verb forms, yet it resists
reanalysis. And it's the only one which has undergone drastic phonological

I'm not trying to douse the fire of fitness in linguistic change; I'm
just wondering how these (and many other) examples can be handled.

Tom Cravens

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