Evolutionary change, 'functional' and 'social'

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Wed Nov 27 04:49:16 UTC 2002

In a message dated 11/22/02 12:59:14 PM, w.croft at MAN.AC.UK writes:
<<  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. >>

Some things that are worth pointing out here:
1) Naturalistic science assumes that to a certain point language arose as a
result of natural selection (biological evolution).  (This does not address a
non-naturalistic, supernatural cause of language -- precisely because it is
not naturalistic.)

So I know of no other scientific position than that biological evolution gave
rise to language .  And that therefore that the changes that brought language
to some point 'X' were identical to natural selection and biological
evolution and diversity.

And, to this extent, I know of no other scientific means of accounting for
the changes which brought about language (to some point X) -- particularly
basic brain-to-speech functionality -- than natural selection.

2) Beyond that certain X point, the phenomena of language in all its shapes
and forms may no longer have been subject to the processes of "undirected"
biological evolution.

But its important to take a closer look at the distinction that Bill Croft
seems to make between change in biological evolution versus language -- the
distinction between directed and random change.  ("...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.")

It should be pointed out that not all plant or animal forms (not all "altered
replications") are the result of "un-directed" change.  In fact, horses,
cows, dogs, corn and carrots are all products of a definite sort of directed
change.  Probably most large non-human mammals on this planet are the result
of a "directed" change.  Some are the result of selective breeding, others
are the result of induced mutation -- but their current forms were all guided
towards a certain utility, certainly "directed" in any sense of the word.

So it is not easy to see the distinction between that particular process --
where humans intervene to re-direct natural selection in plant and animal
breeding -- and "directed" change in language.

3) It would also be a mistake to think that natural selection represents
"random change" in the sense that evolution represents true randomness.  It
does not.  There are extreme constraints on biological change.

The key concept is selection.  No change is preserved unless it conforms to
the demands of the local environment.

What I would suggest is crucially missing in evaluating the comparison of
biological evolution and language change is that concept -- selection.  No
matter how or where a linguistic change may "begin", its survival should be
dependent on some kind of selectivity.  But what or who is doing the

No matter how constrained or directed changes in human speech may be, it
seems it is the listener who decides whether that change will survive.  Once
again, speech that consistently has no effect on the listener will neither
spread or be called change by linguists.  If no one understands what you are
saying, it is highly unlikely that any one will begin to talk like you.
Linguistics doesn't call the repetition of meaningless sounds "language."
That even should apply if the only listener is the person speaking.

So it seems it is the response of the listener that should logically be the
main cause of change and the directionality of change.  Of course this is
subject to a certain degree to biological constraints -- we don't expect
sounds beyond human vocal cords or human hearing, or p's for f's.  But
whether we look at the regularity that is language or any change in that
language, we must have a priori both a speaker and a listener.  Even if they
are the same person.

5.) Natural selection is functional -- in a scientifically observable sense
-- because biological structure, change and diversity is dictated by outcome.
 If language is functional, the outcome of speech should logically dictate
the structure, change and diversity of speech.  To what extent is language
change dictated by something other than outcome?  What would be the other
source, if there is one?

6.) And finally if language did not evolve, either "biologically" or
"culturally" or both, because of its value in communication, what was its

Does anyone really believe that at one time we humans all spoke our own
personal languages out loud and eventually we got around to adapting them to
speak to one another?  That would probably be the only scenario where one
could plausibly see language as having a non-social function.

Steve Long

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