Darwin-L Message Log 4:50 (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.

<4:50>From mufw@midway.uchicago.edu  Tue Dec 14 10:02:38 1993

Date: Tue, 14 Dec 93 10:02:42 CST
From: "salikoko mufwene" <mufw@midway.uchicago.edu>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: RE: DARWIN-L digest 92

>> 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.

  As I understand from reading population genetics as layman, fitness in
biology/population genetics makes no sense without reference to ecology.
What prevails in one particular ecological setting may not in another. It
seems to me that in linguistics things work more or less the same way, the
main challenge being that of characterizing the ecology of linguistic change
adequately enough to account for the setting-based fitness of forms and
constructions. Ecological factors bearing on selection vary, including
simplicity, transparency, uniformity, frequency, perceptual salience, and a
host of others (known and unknown). They do not all obtain in every case.
Those that obtain may converge, thereby eliminating or reducing variation.
But they may also conflict with each other, thus preserving variation.

>Jack Hawkins' recent work on a performance explanation for word order
>universals seems to be based on some notion of fitness (though he does
>not couch it in these terms himself). He claims that the effort of
>processing an utterance may be predicted in part from the order of
>constituents within the utterance.

  "in part" is very critical in this answer. There are several relevant
factors and it is not so simple to determine which ones carry the most

>Hawkins gives a simple metric derived from models of human processing
>that can be used to predict the relative complexity of processing
>various word orders. There is evidence that the basic word orders of
>the world's languages tend to be the ones that are the least complex
>to process by this metric.

  I am very curious how, the force of habits ruled out, one may determine
which constituent order is easier to process than another. Taking, for
instance Subject-Verb-Object vs. Subject-Object-Verb, why should one be
simpler than the other? This is not a charitable interpretation of the
above comment, but it has been suggested in the literature. What I should
ask is what is meant by "basic word orders of the world's languages?"
Salikoko S. Mufwene
Linguistics, U. of Chicago

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