form and function

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Sun Mar 5 10:11:23 UTC 2000

In a message dated 2/27/2000 3:31:40 PM, jaske at SALEM.MASS.EDU writes:

<<Surely, you can use a knife for functions different from those for which it

was created, and we do it all the time, and that may even lead to

innovations in the construction of knives or similar implements >>

One small and modest point about things that acquire functions different from
those for which they were designed.

It would seem that the more specialized a tool is, the more difficult it is
to apply it to other functions.  (I was given for example a set of antique
little screwdrivers, designed for tiny old star-head screws, that are just
too delicate and strangely shaped to use for much else and they are too short
to stir drinks with.)  Going beyond tools and intentionality, isolated
species that specialize to a very specific environment sucessfully will
become less adaptable to other environments.

The observation may be obvious, but a corrolary of it may possibly not be.
When structure becomes especially 'formalized' to a very specific function,
and when that function recedes, what happens to the formality?  I think that
the answer is that we try to find another use for it, but if we don't the
"formality" isn't necessarily junked.  As part of some kind of a conservation
of resource impulse, we feel compeled to retain it and put it in a drawer
someplace where we keep such things and that we only open on odd occasions.
These old special forms like my old screwdrivers, not being adaptable for
anything, even with generous applications of duct tape, go into suspended

And sometimes we forget for what purpose those old screwdrivers were designed.

On another list I've been involved in discussions about measuring the time of
separation from the original proto-language among ancient IE languages.  And
there's a school of thought that consistently uses not the amount of
innovations in those languages to measure time, but rather the most
anachronic attributes - look-alike old cognates that didn't change very much
as the languages hypothetically branched off.  This strikes me as an odd way
to measure time, because such forms are prima facie the least effected by
time and change.

Perhaps I'm stating the obvious by suggesting that the more specialized a
structure is, the harder it is to find other functions for it.  But maybe a
little less obvious is the idea that such specialized formalities also
die-hard - perhaps simply because of their uniqueness - and therefore give a
false impression of structure without function (we don't remember what the
original function was) and structure beyond time (the structure did not
undergo change because it could not be adapted to a new function.)

How much of those old vestigal formalities - for which we've forgotten the
original functions - are part of our language seems like an interesting

Just a very modest observation, humbly submitted.

Steve Long

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