Evolutionary change, 'functional' and 'social'

Bill Croft w.croft at MAN.AC.UK
Fri Nov 22 17:56:23 UTC 2002

      As Dan Everett observes, one must distinguish between
innovation (actuation) and propagation for evolutionary change
(those that occur by replication), such as language change. For
that reason, there is no incompatibility between Labov's
critique of functionalism and what I proposed (pace Dick
Hudson). Only innovation is 'functional'; propagation is social.
Labov and I agree on that point. But I'm not sure who has said
actuation/innovation is 'social', as Dan has stated in his

       (Actually, I am too hasty in equating 'actuation' with
'innovation' here. As far as I understand Weinreich, Labov &
Herzog 1968, the actuation question is both the question of how
innovation occurs and the question of when & where it occurs.
The latter question is tantamount to deterministic prediction.
This doesn't really have a place in a probabilistic model such
as evolutionary change, as several here and elsewhere have

       Also, the apparent incompatibility of sociolinguistics and
functionalism depends on one's definition of 'functional'. Labov
was objecting to teleological functional models of the sort
proposed by Martinet, where a change occurs "in order to" alter
the language system. Change occurs in the process of trying to
socially interact via communication, as Rudi Keller has argued.

      But the mechanisms of innovation (or altered replication,
to use the more abstract terminology of the evolutionists) and
propagation (selection) are domain-specific. So the analogy with
fashion is probably not helpful. Fashion, like cultural change,
is an example of evolutionary change, and so there is both
innovation and propagation of changes of fashion. But one
shouldn't expect the mechanisms of fashion innovation and
propagation to be the same as those for linguistic innovation
and propagation. They certainly aren't for language change and
biological evolution.

      In particular, as Martin Haspelmath points out, language
change is (locally) directional or directed; the fact that
fashion change is not directed is irrelevant. I believe that
language change is (locally) directed because functional
innovation is directed (pace Steve Long). Again, some linguists
have assumed that an evolutionary model of language change
requires innovation to be random because the mechanism of
altered replication in biology, mutation, is random. But the
mechanisms of altered replication in language change and
biological evolution don't have to be the same either; and they
are not.

Bill Croft

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