Darwin-L Message Log 5:77 (January 1994)

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.

<5:77>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Fri Jan 14 10:18:01 1994

Date: Fri, 14 Jan 1994 11:23:51 -0500 (EST)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Origin of "drift" in linguistics and genetics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

The following comes from Jon Marks (jmarks@yalevm.cis.yale.edu); it is an
interesting followup, I think, to some discussions we had a month or so ago.

Bob O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)


I'm new to Darwin-L, and have been quite interested in the discussion of
genetic and linguistic evolution for the last week.  I'd like to raise a
different historical question.  A few weeks ago I was reading Edward Sapir's
(1921) "Language," which includes a chapter on language "drift", an excerpt
of which I have appended.  It struck me as extraordinarily similar
conceptually to "genetic drift", as formulated and adopted into the shifting
balance theory of Sewall Wright.  The earliest use of the term I can find
is in Wright, ca. 1929.  I know Sapir taught at Chicago in the late 1920s, as
did Wright.  Does anyone know about the origins of the term "genetic drift"?
Might it be a case of diffusion from linguistics to population genetics?
Coincidence?  Something else?
       --Jon Marks
       Dept. of Anthropology, Yale University

Language moves down time in a current of its own making.  It has
a drift.  If there were no breaking up of a language into
dialects, if each language continued as a firm, self-contained
unity, it would still  be constantly moving away from any
assignable norm, developing new features unceasingly and gradually
transforming itself into a language so different from its
starting point  as to be in effect a new language.  Now dialects
arise not because of the mere fact of individual variation but
because two or more groups of individuals have become
sufficiently disconnected to drift apart, or independently,
instead of together.  So long as they keep strictly together, no
amount of individual variation would lead to the formation of
dialects.  In practice, of course, no language can be spread over
a vast territory or even over a considerable area without showing
dialectic variations, for it is impossible to keep a large
population from segregating itself into local groups, the
language of each of which tends to drift independently.

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