Darwin-L Message Log 7:78 (March 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.

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<7:78>From lgorbet@mail.unm.edu  Mon Mar 21 09:04:25 1994

Date: Mon, 21 Mar 1994 08:04:20 -0700
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: lgorbet@mail.unm.edu
Subject: Re: trees, historical linguistics and gradualness

Margaret Winters seeks to qualify Tom Cravens' remarks on gradualness, saying

>When we are talking
>about specific linguistic units, ...and especially sounds,
>this question of gradualness versus abruptness seems to me to
>take on another dimension.  For many versions of the phoneme
>(contrastive units of sounds within a given language), they can
>either exist or not exist, but cannot be only partially in
>existence, virtually by definition.  This is different from the
>sounds of languages which change, according to evidence from
>speech variation within a community in particular, very gradually,
>with variation across lexical items, social register (formal versus
>informal speech, etc.) and other factors.  What this comes to
>(again by my interpretation which is certainly open to argument)
>is that Tom's image of a continuum is very true for sound change,
>especially if we abstract away from any sense of a straight line,
>but is not true for structural change where we look at the
>significant units, phonemes

This is not literally true, in some fairly non-controversial ways (and some
quite controversial ones too!).

First, the inventory of phonemes can vary within a community just as surely
as can their precise pronunciations.  In American English, for example,
there is a widespread change occurring which merges the vowels of the words
_caught_ and _cot_ (eliminating as a phoneme the vowel of the former, as it
is pronounced in most British English and much American, including my own
speech).  In any introductory linguistics class, I can be confident that
there will be students for whom the vowel of _caught_ ("open o") is a
member of a different phoneme from that of _cot_ and others for whom it is

Moreover, in a single speaker's speech, two phonemes may exist in some
registers but only one in others.  Thus for me, in my native dialect of
Amer. English, the vowels of _pin_ and _pen_ do not contrast; but they do
in the more formal academic English that I generally use at the university.

And two sounds may contrast in some phonological environments and not
others.  Or may contrast only in a very small part of the vocabulary.  Or
most but not all.

I suspect analogies with biological evolutionary phenomena are fairly easy
to see.  To take but one example, for two populations, what percent of
their members must be how likely to be incapable of successful
interbreeding with those of the other for them to be separate species?  Or,
perhaps more to the point, given just two *individuals* from the two
populations, there may be a particular likelihood that a given offspring
will be viable and itself fertile---how small does it have to be...

Finally, Margaret correctly notes that

>phonemes by most accounts are
>not just useful inventions of linguists to talk about organization
>of language, but exist in psychologically real ways as human mental

However, though this certainly *is* controversial, there are those of us
who believe that even the contrast between phonemes may, in a single
variety of a single speaker's speech, be fuzzy in certain instances (albeit
exceptional ones).  This might be manifested behaviorally, for example, by
inconsistent pronunciation or discrimination.  And would tend to occur
during acquisition, or during times of incipient change.

Larry Gorbet                         lgorbet@mail.unm.edu
Anthropology & Linguistics Depts.    (505) 883-7378
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM, U.S.A.

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