19 July 2013

Consider a Hammer

Figure1: Co-opting a natural object
According to Wikipedia, “A hammer is a tool meant to deliver an impact to an object. The most common uses for hammers are to drive nails, fit parts, forge metal and break apart objects. Hammers are often designed for a specific purpose, and vary in their shape and structure.” Hammers have been shaped by the functions they typically perform. A heavy metal head fixed on a light handle stores kinetic energy before the blow is delivered. The length, cross-section and shape of the handle are ergonomically adapted to human handgrip and typical working conditions. There are functionally motivated differences between, say, a light claw hammer used for driving and removing nails and a heavy-duty sledgehammer used for tearing down walls.

Figure 2: Putting a handle on it
The ancestors of all hammers were natural cobbles used as hammerstones by Palaeolithic humans (as well as earlier hominins). They carried out some of the same functions as modern hammers, albeit less efficiently. There was no handle (its function was played by the user’s arm), and hammerstones used for different purposes had the same general shape, differing mostly in size and weight. Small gradual improvements and  occasional major inventions (a wooden handle, the use of bronze or steel instead of stone) transformed the primitive tool visible in Figure 1 into a more sophisticated version (Figure 2), and finally into a fully streamlined  modern hammer (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Shaped by its functions
Of course a hammer can be used for many other purposes beside pounding nails into things or splitting hard objects. It can serve as a makeshift paperweight, a percussion instrument (as in Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris No. 2), an improvised weapon, and even as a ritual or ceremonial object – for example, the emblem of a smithing god. Such accidental functions do not normally influence the evolution of hammers. If a type of hammer acquires a historically stable secondary function (e.g. removing nails), you can see the characteristic adaptations (a flattened and rounded claw), copied and perfected by new generations of hammer manufacturers. Ad hoc functions have no such consequences. Nobody modifies the shape of a hammer to make it a better paperweight. Its only when a hammer is regularly recruited for a new task that adaptation begins to shape it in a new way. This may lead to the emergence of highly specialised hammers (such as the judge’s gavel or the doctor’s knee mallet).

The first hammers were not designed by anyone. Our distant ancestors learnt to select naturally formed stones. Then they learnt to improve their shape, fix them on a handle to optimise energy transmission, etc. The functional features of a hammer are those that have been consistently selected for in the past. It’s always possible to use a tool in an unconventional way, but such occasional applications don’t explain why the tool looks the way it does. Some features (for example, the colour of the handle) are free to vary. They are non-adaptive, devoid of functional importance.

I hope you can see how this hammer analogy can be applied to linguistic structures. That’s what will be done in the next post.

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.

16 July 2013

Language as Clockwork

Proto-World was fun, wasn’t it? but there’s little I can add to the topic. If any readers of this blog would like to continue discussing mass comparison and global etymologies, they are welcome to do so in the comment boxes in that thread. Let’s change the perspective again and focus on linguistic microevolution. In the nearest future I would like to discuss the following things: the notion of “function” in linguistics, and two fundamental mechanism of evolution: adaptative change and random drift.

Functional approaches to language emphasise the view of language as an instrument of human communication and social interaction. Therefore, functional factors such as people’s communicative needs (and in particular considerations of iconicity, economy, and ease of processing) are thought to exert influence on the course of language change: some changes are advantageous for effective communication and therefore encouraged by functional motivations, while others are deleterious and therefore discouraged. There is an understandable tendency among functionally inclined linguists to regard all elements of language as functional in some sense (like the interlocking parts of a carefully designed clockwork mechanism), and to insist that any explanation of language change should assume the form of a functionally motivated scenario (change happens for a “reason”). The idea that a language system can be to a large extent messy and basically functionless, and that much of language change is random and neutral (or as nearly neutral as matters) with respect to its users’ needs and goals, flies in the face of the tenets of functionalism, and so may seem provocative to many mainstream linguists. It will be defended here, but first I shall take a closer look at the fuzzy concept of “function” and the role it plays in linguistics. This is what the next post will be about.

05 July 2013

Global Water for the Last Time

I’m sorry for such a long break since the last post, but the end of the academic year is a busy time. Where were we? Ah, yes, the global etymon meaning ‘water’.

I analysed the Indo-European evidence in some detail to highlight the fact that, although Latin aqua has cognates here and there in Indo-European, its attestation is too weak to treat the word as reconstructible all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. It’s a regional word with uncertain affinities, and surely not the PIE ‘water’ word (there are better candidates for that status). Its story contains a moral: sheer similarity, even within an uncontroversial family, doesn’t mean anything by itself. There is an inherited verb root meaning ‘drink’ which looks tantalisingly similar to aqua (and was once regarded as related to it), but which has to be separated from it, given what we know today. Our improved understanding of some of the languages of the past (such as Hittite and the rest of the Anatolian clade) has forced us to abandon quite a few superficially promising etymologies. And it’s a good thing: it shows that etymologies are in principle falsifiable. All you need is a good model within which they can be evaluated.

Of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It may conceivably happen that a word present in a protolanguage survives only in one language descended from it, or in a small cluster of related languages. In such cases, outgroup comparison may still enable us to recognise the word as inherited. We only need some secure external cognates and a consistent pattern of correspondences. We can’t, however, trust conclusions drawn only from the existence of vaguely similar words scattered across several families, especially if there is no pattern they could fit into because the researchers feel free to avoid real reconstructive work. If you look at Bengtson & Ruhlen (B&R)’s data, you will find many clear examples of “reaching down” (selecting isolated lookalikes and pretending they represent the families in question).

For example, words related to aqua are claimed to be present in Afro-Asiatic, while in fact all the proposed cognates  come from two periferal branches: Omotic (whose very membership in Afro-Asiatic is is uncertain) and Cushitic (whose exact location in a the AA family tree is anything but clear, but which is areally close to Omotic, so that borrowing between them is hard to rule out). The meaning of the suggested cognates is sometimes ‘water’, (but also ‘[to be] wet’, ‘drink’ or ‘drops of water’). But what about the Berber, Chadic, Egyptian and Semitic branches of Afroasiatic, where no such item occurs? What about alternative ‘water’ words which can be found in Cushitic and/or Omotic? (By the way, putative cognates of aqua occur only in North Omotic.) Afro-Asiatic is a big family, with about 300 extant members. With so many languages and “related meanings” to choose from, and with no formal controls, pseudo-cognates crop up inevitably. An Amerind Etymological Dictionary (Greenberg & Ruhlen 2007) lists no fewer than seventeen different etyma meaning ‘water’: *aqʷ’a/*uqʷ’a (of course), but also *man, *poi, *re, *si, *kʷati, *p’ak, *na, *ʔali, *pan, *tuna, *c’i, *kam ~ *kom, *to ~ *do, *kona, *xi, and *hobi (while we’re at it, there are also eight Amerind words for ‘dog’ and thirteen for ‘eye’). These forms are not real comparative reconstructions (their phonetic details are nowhere dicussed or justified) and must be treated as approximate, which of course makes comparison as easy as pie, especially if semantics is given as much leeway as phonology.

Lost in distillation
[Source: Wikimedia]
If you don’t reconstruct past sound changes, how can you decide whether, e.g., French eau (pronounced /o/) is related to Spanish agua, or that both of them are related to Romanian apă? Note that these three modern Romance languages began to diverge less than two thousand years ago. Their modern ‘water’ words are already more different from the common ancestor (yes, Latin aqua) than the latter is from, say, some of the “Amerind” forms cited by B&R. Sound change may be rapid and dramatic. What, then, constitutes a “match” if you are comparing languages supposedly separated by 10,000 or 20,000 years of independent development, and if you can’t even be bothered to study systematic sound correspondences or morphological patterns? Ignorance helps you to see patterns that knowledge dispels at once. In Kove, one of the Austronesian languages of New Britain (in the Bismarck Archipelago), water is called eau. If we knew less than we do about the history of French (or Kove, for that matter), we might suspect a long-range connection, mightn’t we? Is Proto-Pama-Nyungan *nguku/i (which should replace B&R’s anachronistic “Proto-Australian” *gugu) related to Lat. aqua? Well, if I am shown a serious etymological proposal, with the relevant sound changes, morphological derivations and semantic shifts (if any) all spelt out, I’ll tell you what I think of it. Untestable guesswork hardly deserves to be discussed.

A “cognate” like “Proto-Central-Algonquian *akwā ‘from water’” may look impressive until one learns that the actual root, Proto-Algonquian *akw- (the * came from the wrong segmentation of an Algonquian compound) means ‘ashore, out of the water’ (indicating location or direction rather than the place of origin) and that the real Algonquian ‘water’ term is *nepyi (for details, as well as the for full review of other Algonquian data cited by B&R, see Marc Picard 1998). But of course there are so many “Amerind” ‘water’ words that *nepyi could even be decomposed into more than one of them (e.g. *na + *poi).

Impressionistic comparison without any regard for methodological rigour will invariably produce the same outcome: a haphazard collection of words from, say, a dozen families and a few dozen languages (out of the world’s several thousand) which look vaguely similar and have vaguely similar meanings. How should one formulate a relationship proposal based on such evidence, so that other people could evaluate it? Surely not by listing the putative cognates and saying “look!” in the hope that the raw unanalysed evidence will speak for itself. But “global etymologists” do just that. They promise that someone, sometime, will carry out the actual comparative work, but they also claim that their data stand even without it. That’s wishful thinking, pure and simple.