Daniel Everett daniel.everett at
Tue May 31 21:59:05 UTC 2005


We have had this discussion before, it seems to me. I agree with you
about the greatness of Ernst Mayr and there is nothing to object to in
his statement, obviously. On the other hand, I think your teleological
interpretation of it is somewhat off the mark. The fact that evolution
is guided by adaptive behavior doesn't mean that evolution is
goal-directed. Nor does it mean that all there is to evolution is
random mutation. The choices you provide do not exhaust the
possibilities. And for modern humans, sure, cultural evolution has
taken on a role that it didn't have for trilobites or even troglodytes.
I certainly wouldn't claim that it is by 'genes alone'. In fact I
believe that cultural forces shape language evolution even now,
constraining form and function in ways that neither functionalists nor
formalists have considered, though in ways which Boas at least would
have predicted (as in the quote from his introduction to the Handbook
of AIL - "It does not seem likely, therefore, that there is any direct
relation  between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak,
except in  so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the
state of the  culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the
culture is  conditioned by morphological traits of the language." Boas

With regard to Aristotle and Cratylus, Pieter Seuren's discussion of
their relative contributions in his _Western Linguistics_ seems
persuasive and useful. As Plato's ideas go back further, so do
Aristotle's. But I think it is good for those of us who believe that
"Plato's Problem" is no problem at all should have an alternative
'problem' to propose to focus on the symbiosis between grammar and
culture (not just society), in ways that take Boas's quote above
seriously (which on the surface is anti-Whorfian). I am not
anti-Whorfian, but I do think that that particular tool is less
significant in certain cases than Boasian culture-> language

The Plato's Problem I am concerned about is political, and best posed
by Popper in the Open Society and its Enemies.

But I doubt, once again, that we disagree on that much, aside from the
role of teleology in evolution (or historical linguistics). I don't
think it plays a role in either. And for the latter, I think that Sarah
Grey Thomason has had quite a few interesting things to say. And
Juliette Blevins as well in her Evolutionary Phonology.



P.S. If this weren't a public forum I might mention, Tom, that there is
some new music on my website. But I won't...

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