criticisms of grammaticalization

D.L. Everett daniel.everett at
Sun Feb 26 05:48:05 UTC 2006

I certainly agree that language change is reminiscent of bio-evolution.

In my current work (see Science News Dec. 10, 2005 or New Scientist,  
March 08, 2006, or Anthropology News, for popular summaries) I am  
arguing that language evolution is on-going, that languages do not  
all have the same expressive power, and that individual languages can  
undergo pressure to fit particular cultural niches.  Some of this is  
anticipated in other works, of course. But to argue convincingly for  
such claims one needs in-depth studies of individual languages  
alongside broad surveys.

Grammaticalization has a role to play in this, but convincing cases  
for evolution of individual languages in the sense that I find most  
interesting, i.e. languages fitting cultural niches,  will link  
grammatical structures to cultural values.

Dan Everett

On 26 Feb 2006, at 05:48, Tom Givon wrote:

> The *epiphenomenon* epithet is just that. All biologically-based,  
> adaptively-evolved systems can thus be dismissed as 'epiphenomena',  
> because they are the product of interaction between serendipity  
> (random mutation) and teleology  (not ID,but the teleological  
> behavior of organisms during selection). Does that mean that  
> evolutionary biology has not come up with explanatory principles  
> that account for why synchronic forms are the way they are? No  
> serious biologist would agree with that. Does it mean that  
> evolutionary biology has succeeded in explaining everytring? No  
> serious biologist would be so dumb as to claim that. Science is  
> gradual and cumulative (not revolutionary, as Kuhn would have us  
> believe), you don't solve all problems with a neat new theory. Not  
> even Einstein did.
> Up to a point, linguistic *diachrony* is rather similar to bio- 
> evolution. Both are ultimately adaptively-driven, thus (Labov &  
> Newmeyer notwithstanding) functionally motivated. All you have to  
> do is study the rich variational data a bit more carefully. Both  
> begin with rathe local, low-level *variation* that eventually may  
> engender rather global, often strartling consequences. Both begin  
> with *functional extension* (thus early *functional ambiguity*) of  
> an existing structure (or lexeme). Both are profoundly uni- 
> directional. In both, the directionality (and its governing  
> motivating principles) are *never 100%*, but is nonetheless  quite  
> robust. And as Ernst Mayr said, what distinguishes biology from  
> physics/math/logic  is precisely that--less-than-100%  
> generalization--but generalization nonetheless. And finally, in  
> both the reason for less-than-100% generalization is the same:  
> *Multi-variant environment*, *competing motivations*, and the  
> availability of alternatives. For example, there are at least 7-8  
> major ways (plus lots of minor ones) for grammaticalizing the  
> 'passive' function (agent suppression), or the REL-clause  
> fiunction.  And  indeed quite often this multiplicity of courses  
> ius found in a single language, so that multiple alternative  
> solutions (constructions) *compete* for the same (or rather  
> similar) function. Why eventually one alternative is chosen over  
> the others to be statistically dominant depends on those multiple  
> other factors.
> Here is another similarity with bio-evolution and diachrony--the  
> very  same initial popullation can re-fashion the same source-organ  
> towards different target (think of the mammal forelimb; or the  
> gframmaticalization of 'go', 'take', 'come' etc.). That is, *one-to- 
> many*. Likewise, *many-to-one* is found is found in both  
> grammaticalization (massively; that's the essence of grammatical- 
> typological diversity) and in bio-evolution, although much less  
> less commonly in the latter. (Think e.g. of the main metabolic  
> pathways to energy production: anaerobic sulfur bacteria, oxygen- 
> burning organisms; the latter plus photosynthesis; the way  
> different organs may be recruited for doing respiration in  
> different phila).
> One of the main differencs between bio-evolution and diachrony has  
> to do with  the *source of the serendipity* (randomness). We have  
> no real equivalent in diachrony to random mutations, since morpho- 
> syntax gets forever re-cycled, rather than genetically coded. But  
> everyday communicative behavior of individiuals (as Joan Bybee  
> says) in a way apes the randomness of DNA mutation, by producing-- 
> in the communal pool--multiple variants that then compete for  
> selection. Conversely, the '*selection*' part of diachronic change  
> is much more socially dependent than selection in biology; although  
> in many social species there begins to be an element of *social  
> transmission* of individual innovative behavior, which becomes part  
> of the overall mechanism of selection.
> Finally, if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say Newmeyer, Joseph and  
> Janda have been fighting the same old rear-guard war agains viewing  
> grammaticalization as a *natural phenomenon*, rather than a bizarre  
> artifact ('epiphenomenon'). And of course, their work is part and  
> parcel of what Chomsky has been trying to do over a lifetime; that  
> is, viewing language as a unique phenomenon that is not subject to  
> selective pressures (viz his recent, most intriguing, foray into  
> evolution--of 'recursivity').
> I think it behooves us all to take biology a bit more to heart.
> Best,  TG
> =========================
>  Likewise, there are many targets that can be colonized by the same  
> source (think of how 'go' can grammaticalize
>> On Sat, 25 Feb 2006 hilpert at wrote:
>>> 1. Unidirectionality, if it exists, is an even greater problem for
>>> functionalism than if it turns out to be false. Developments that  
>>> span
>>> centuries would have to be explained independently of speakers,  
>>> who only
>>> have access to three generations of other speakers. (I attribute  
>>> this one to
>>> Janda 2001.)
>> So how is this different from the argument that says that the eye  
>> could
>> not be the result of evolution through natural selection, since that
>> would require the organism to teleologically look many generations
>> down the road to see the culmination of the process?
>> Scott DeLancey
>> Department of Linguistics
>> 1290 University of Oregon
>> Eugene, OR 97403-1290, USA
>> delancey at

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