Postal quote/directionality/talking to oneself

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Mon Nov 25 07:12:53 UTC 2002

In a message dated 11/23/02 8:25:40 PM, ansteyfamily at writes:
<< I think there is a danger here of explanatory reductionism, whereby there
is posited THE primary cause of language change. Paul Boersma (Functional
Phonology, 1998, phd Amsterdam) suggests that just for phonology there are
five functional principles at work, often in conflict with one another. They
are (1) speakers minimise articulartory
effort; (2) speakers minimise perceptual confusion between utterances with
different meanings; (3) listeners minimise effort needed for perceptual
classification; (4) listeners maximise use of acoustic information; (5)
speaker and listener maximise the information flow.  Principle (5) is akin to
your comment above. >>

It can't be accurate to lump these "principles" causing phonological change
together, as if "information flow" were merely a subcategory.

Consider a situation where Principle (5) is totally absent.  Neither speaker
nor listener has the slightest interest in "information flow."  Don't the
other four principles become totally irrelevant?  Why would a speaker be
interested in minimizing the "confusion between utterances with different
meanings?"   Why would a listener care at all about "perceptual
classification"?  Putting the need to maximize information flow at zero, the
speaker has nothing to say and the listener is not listening.

What Principles 1-4 above are actually describing are various methods for
maximizing "information flow" -- if we want to use those words.  Even when
"speakers minimise articulartory effort", they are doing nothing more than
seeking to move information more efficiently, more "economically" -- subject
to the threshold of comprehensibilty and  given that they are speaking to
someone who may not understand them if they are too economical.

But there's not much point in worrying about too much or too little
"articulatory effort" if no one is listening.  All of these "principles"
basically are created by the need for communication.

As far as the danger "of explanatory reductionism, whereby there is posited
THE primary cause of language change",  let me just be clear about what I was

I wrote that "the primary directionality is NOT change."  This seems
blatantly apparent to me.  Comprehensibility demands that speakers speak much
the same most of the time, with the same sounds coresponding to the same

If that's true, then can INCOMPREHENSIBITY can ever be the objective when
sounds or grammar change in a language?  Do speakers ever actuate or adopt
sound changes so that absolutely no one else will understand them when they
are speaking out loud?

I think that it is more plausible to believe that changes are adopted when
they aid in some way in communication or listener comprehension -- perhaps
often selectively.  Even the Labovian speaker who adopts a more "prestigious"
dialect is trying to communicate something new in his new way of speaking.

As to why sound changes follow a p > f type directionality, when they occur
-- that's like asking why all chairs have a place to put our bottoms.  The
reason is we all biologically have bottoms, but it definitely does not tell
us why there are such things as chairs.

BTW, I wrote as to why some languages did not adopt the p > f sound shift:
"The answer is, of course, that retaining the p is linguistically functional
in the first place."

It's interesting that one explanation sometimes offered for the historic p >
f shift in Germanic is that non-indo-european language speakers adopted the
new language but retained the phonotactics of their old pre-IE language,
i.e., spoke with an "accent".  Whether or not that is true, it suggests that
even in that kind of "sound change" it is possible to look for a conservative
motivation.  So that some changes might even be seen as nothing more than an
adjustment to keep some other things the same.

Steve Long

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