18 July 2013

Who Benefits from Language Change?

Since functionalism treats language as a tool designed and perfected by humans to serve their needs, it understands function as a purpose-oriented property of linguistic structures: it is a way of achieving a communicative aim by linguistic means. Language is fine-tuned to optimise communication, which means, among other things, that the natural conflict between the speaker’s needs (encoding and sending linguistic messages at a low cost) and the listener’s needs (receiving and decoding messages without unnecessary effort) must be resolved. Languages maintain a delicate balance between ease of production and ease of perception. For example, precise enunciation is expensive in terms of articulatory effort and neuromuscular control, but if the speaker tries to reduce this cost excessively by sacrifying precision, the result may be the listener’s failure to understand the message. Since having to repeat a sentence twice is usually costlier than saying it once with sufficient clarity, the speaker has to anticipate any undesirable difficulties at the listener’s end, and the tendency to favour ease of articulation is mitigated by those anticipations.

To whose benefit?
Artist: Matthew Martin
Language change can make life minimally easier for the speaker or the listener. Sound changes are often classified into “lenitions” (weakenings) and “fortitions” (strengthenings). Weakenings consist in reducing articulatory effort (and the acoustic prominence of speech sounds), while strengthenings involve increased effort (and acoustic prominence). In this dualist interpretation, weakenings are speaker-oriented, while strengthenings are listener-oriented. Any change has a purpose, and therefore a functional significance – all that needs to be determined is its orientation: cui bono?

Note, however, that an explanatory statement like ‘/t/-glottaling occurs in some accents of English because it is a speaker-friendly articulatory weakening’ is hard to falsify. Whatever happens to the phonetic realisation of /t/, you can always “explain” it in a circular fashion as an attempt to improve either ease of production or ease of perception. A change can’t be functionally neutral simply because there’s no place for such a thing in the functionalist view of language. It would be nice if we could predict when change will be driven by the speaker’s or the listener’s needs (or when nothing happens). If instead we identify the motivating factor after the fact, depending on the outcome, it’s an “either way I win” kind of game, where you can explain everything but predict nothing. Of course there are some characteristic cross-linguistic “hotspots” of change: weakenings are more likely in unstressed environments or syllable-finally; strengthenings happen more often under stress and syllable-initially. This kind of conditioning, however, is sensitive to the segmental and prosodic context rather than the needs of language users.

Then, there are classificatory problems. In non-rhotic varieties of English final or preconsonantal /r/ becomes vocalised. If preceded by a full vowel, it coalesces with it, causing the vowel to undergo lengthening and/or diphthongisation (e.g. /kard/ > /kɑːd/ ‘card’, /niːr/ > /nɪə/ ‘near’). Whose life is made easier by this change? Is it weakening, strengthening, or six of the one and half a dozen of the other? Doesn’t the increased length/complexity of the syllable nucleus compensate for the consonant loss? What about the fact that the phonemic inventory of non-rhotic English may become larger and more complex as a result? If both the speaker and the listener lose something and gain something else at the same time, why bother changing anything? Why does this kind of change spread at all if there’s no clear net gain from it for anybody?

There are accents of American English where /æ/ is tensed, raised and diphthongised, becoming [eə]. This can be regarded as phonological reinforcement, and therefore a kind of strengthening. The vowel becomes more salient, which might benefit the listener. But in most varieties of American English the change is restricted to certain environments: some accents have it only before nasals, others before nasals and voiceless fricatives, and still others before nasals, voiceless fricatives, and voiced stops (often with lexical exceptions). Why is the presumed anticipation of the listener’s needs selective in this way?

Some “functions” are self-evident. It is obvious that the function of a word is to carry a lexical meaning and a syntactic role (sometimes more than one). There are no completely functionless words practically by definition. But what, for instance, is the function of the final /st/ in amongst (synonymous with among)? Whose convenience does it serve? If semantic change takes place, as when Old English cniht ‘boy’ developed into Middle English knyght ‘knight, nobleman’, how does one measure its impact on communication? If this particular shift was motivated by some functional pressure, I would like to hear the details.

In the next post I shall try to re-define function in such a way that it becomes less teleological and more distinguishable from accidental byproducts of linguistic evolution. Please be prepared to consider the possibility that language structure is not entirely rational, functional, or intelligently designed.


  1. Hi, what do you think of Dr Fred Fields' assessment that language and the language faculty are designed. Have you dialogued with him or his work specifically? Best wishes.

    1. You mean Fredric Field, don't you? I know him as the author of serious and interesting books on bilingualism, and therefore a bona fide linguist. What he has to say about the origin of the language faculty on creationist websites is total nonsense, so different in quality from his published work that it's really hard to believe it's the same person.

    2. Maybe you have dealt with this question before, Piotr. I am not familiar with your blog.

      Is it possible to establish a meaningful comparison between the evolutionary mechanisms of language/s and those behind the development of the biological function of language in humans?

  2. Hello, Pablo. I am not sure what you mean by "meaningful comparison". There are of course analogies between biological evolution in general and the evolution of languages. They are not accidental; they reflect similar patterns of "change in the frequency of heritable variants" resulting, in the long run, in "descent with modification". That granted, I don't think there's a particularly close analogy between language change and the evolutionary origin of the language faculty: they are separate problems concerning separate classes of phenomena (different domains, different time scales and rates of change).

  3. Thanks! You clarified my doubt. I'll try to hang on and learn.