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.

1 comment:

  1. "but first I shall take a closer look at the fuzzy concept of “function” and the role it plays in linguistics. "

    Good move. How about this - the function of language to mark in-group membership can trump "iconicity, economy, and ease of processing" and in fact may require that in order to develop a sociolect that is sufficiently difficult to mimic easily that it can in fact serve as a mark of membership. Shibbolths have to be confusing and hard to learn.