Evolution, and 'functional' + 'social'

Bill Croft w.croft at MAN.AC.UK
Fri Nov 29 16:56:04 UTC 2002

      One must distinguish between the evolution of language
and the evolution of languages. The former is the evolution
of human cognition and social behavior that permitted the
rise of modern human language. This is of course an
instance of biological evolution, of human beings. The
latter is the process by which linguistic elements change
over time. This is an evolutionary process, that is it
involves change by replication; but it is not the same
evolutionary process as biological evolution. The evolving
populations are different: not genes and organisms, but
tokens of linguistic structure (called 'linguemes' in
"Explaining language change") and speakers.

      I agree that selection is a central aspect of language
change; it usually goes under the name of propagation in
sociohistorical linguistics. But change by replication
involves both innovation (altered replication) and
propagation (selection). Change doesn't happen without both
steps of the process taking place. They are equally

      When I hypothesized that innovation/altered
replication in language change is functional and
propagation/selection is social, I had specific definitions
of 'functional' and 'social' in mind. Both terms have been
used to cover many different phenomena, within linguistics
and without. One can construe innovation as social in some
sense - after all, anything to do with language is social -
and propagation as functional in some sense - after all,
any social behavior which is successful (by some criterion)
is functional in a way. My hypothesis applies only to the
notion of 'functional' as 'pertaining to the mapping
between morphosyntactic form and semantic-pragmatic
substance, and between phonological form and phonetic
substance', and 'social' as 'pertaining to language in
social interaction and social organization'. In fact the
latter is still too vague; I should perhaps have said just
'social organization' (see "Explaining language change",
chapter 7).

      Also, when I wrote about the prospect of a fruitful
marriage between functional and sociolinguistic approaches
to language, I had these particular definitions in mind.
The link between the two is, of course, social interaction:
function only makes sense with respect to social
interaction, and social organization is the result of
social interaction.

Bill Croft

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