Postal quote/directionality/talking to oneself

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Fri Nov 22 16:38:01 UTC 2002

In a message dated 11/22/02 8:26:51 AM, jlmendi at POSTA.UNIZAR.ES writes:
<< Although this could sound paradoxical, I agree with Everett, but not with
Haspelmath or Croft. If 'actuation' (and diffusion) is (are) social and not
functional, then the explanation of lg change is not really functional >>

The problem here I think is in viewing "social" as somehow opposite to

Martin Haspelmath's original point was that linguistic change has
"directionality", something that apparently does not occur in "fashion" - and
therefore that such change must be functional.

The difficulty in separating fashion from function is old one.  In
anthropology, it was addressed a while ago by Bronislaw Malinowski's
"Structural-Functionalism" where some rational sense was given to the
interaction between the two factors.  And it's worth noting that even random,
arbitrary change can be viewed in this context as "functional", in that it
provides a mechanism for structural growth -- much in the same way that
random genetic mutations supplies the raw material for biological diversity.
Random linguistic change is in essence "experimental" -- it supplies new
functionality and there-in lies its function.

On the other hand, conservative preservation of apparently "functionless"
fashion also serves the function of providing predictability and stability in
social interactions.  Predictability - even arbitrary predictability - has a
parallel function in language.

Martin's example of "f > p" sound change does show directionality, to the
extent that "p > f" is not regularly observable.  But it may be important to
remember that how a sound change happens is a very different question than
how a sound change spreads.  "p > f" may well happen, but it does not become
part of a language system -- it does not spread and is not preserved.
Perhaps it is always a isolated failed experiment, whenever it happens.

At the base of all this is the fact that language is fundamentally a social

If a person who has never learned a language from someone else talks to
himself, what language does he use?  And when he speaks to someone else, can
he use truly "arbitrary" sounds?  Isn't the understanding of the listener a
"functional" consideration?  Doesn't the objective of communication make
language ALWAYS a functional matter?  -- Unless of course one is content with
only babbling to one's self?

Steve Long

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