Darwin-L Message Log 5:163 (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.

<5:163>From bjoseph@magnus.acs.ohio-state.edu  Wed Jan 26 21:59:18 1994

Date: Wed, 26 Jan 94 23:07:22 EST
From: Brian D Joseph <bjoseph@magnus.acs.ohio-state.edu>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Posting re language adaptation

Just to throw in my two-cents on the question posed by the list
owner, let me raise the question of what it would mean for a
language to be adapted to the regions they were spoken in?

I know that the claim has been made in the past, as Tom Cravens
has already pointed out, that climate might have an effect on the
way speakers might articulate the sounds of their language and thus
lead to change in pronunciation.  One such claim that I remember
hearing, though I cannot recall the source, is that the nasalized
vowels of French are the result of the damp climate in France, but it
is hard to take that seriously, given the number of languages with
nasalized vowels that are or were spoken in different climates (e.g.
Portuguese, Old Church Slavonic, Sanskrit, among many others)
and the natural (i.e. physiologically-based) source of vowel
nasalization in French (and most languages with nasal vowels) as
spreading of nasality of a nasal consonant onto an adjacent vowel
(French nasalized vowels in general, for instance, derive from
sequences of vowel plus [n] or [m] in Latin).

Still, even if (counterfactually) the French nasalized vowels were
the result of the climate in which the language was spoken, I submit
that this is not quite the same as saying that the language, as if it
were some sort of organism, adapted to the regions it was spoken
in. Wouldn't such a view require there to be something beneficial
*to the language*, as opposed to the speakers, in the putative
adaptive change?  It is hard for me to see what value for the
language as a system, for example, there would be in such a

This "organism" view of language is easy to take, and linguists
tend to talk, perhaps metaphorically, as if language were an
organism, but I feel it is important to realize that in a certain sense,
a language exists through its speakers, and doesn't have an
existence completely separate from its speakers/users (exception
must be made, of course, for so-called "dead" languages, and for
the fact that a certain degree of abstraction is necessary in
conceiving of language as a system, hence my qualification, "in a
certain sense", above).

I realize that Bob O'Hara was not necessarily advocating such a
view, and don't mean to seem as if I am taking him to task for that.
His question just provided me with an opportunity to interject this

For the record, and by way of introduction, I am a professor of
linguistics at The Ohio State University, and am a practicing
historical linguist (specializing in Greek (especially Medieval and
Modern Greek), Latin, Sanskrit, and Indo-European in general); I
joined the list a few weeks ago and have been interested in the
discussions I have followed silently so far.  (Forgive me if this is longer
than the average posting; it is my first, after all.)

Brian D. Joseph
Dept. of Linguistics
222 Oxley Hall
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH  43210-1298


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