Reflections on Grammaticalization, Epiphenomena, etc....

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Wed Mar 15 22:15:07 UTC 2006

I'm not the first to suggest also that in many cases language is used as well to stop communications. All sorts of sociolinguistic phenomena help identify one as in- or out-member of a group (actually multidimensional grading). One doesn't necessarily want an enemy to know your plans (or have things changed radically re linguistic profiling since 9/11?), and its always good to be forewarned when some member of the riff-raff attempts to nose his way into the old-boy club.

Perhaps language might be thought of as a social/technical regulatory system, with analogies not only at the genetic level, but also higher up, where other parts of the biochemical realm (such as hormones, growth factors, etc.) help to integrate or isolate multiple or individual compartments/components as needed. Even simple organisms such as sea anemonies can recognize each other chemically, as in- or out- group. And parasites must evade immune defenses in order to gain access to internal resources. The secret handshake can get you past the bouncer.

As for MT, which along with NLAI got me interested in linguistics in the first place, my own take is that it is largely a positivistic reductionist mindset which is at fault for so many of the failed efforts, though giving due weight to the inertia created by establishment of powerful theoretical schools. Linguistics came very late to the 'scientific' table, and in some ways is still a party crasher (much as I am also ironically). Scott DeLancey's 'physics envy'. The ghost of Bloomfield haunts the hallowed halls, egged on by a gallery of dead Neogrammarian ancestors.

But is some of this really possibly just symptomatic of the relationship linguistics (and increasingly most maturing fields) often has with funders, who don't want complex explanations as they stare at their watches and their eyes cross? A sort of evolutionary selection, where shiny, sparkly promises of simple and quick solutions to otherwise natty problems open the dollar floodgates? What kind of personal and political psychological makeup predisposes one to success in such an environment? How often does self-promoting, carefully groomed professional dynamic image prevail over substance and ability in the less appealing (and verbose) package?

It is also interesting that the oversimplification of real complexity when dealing with outsiders has its inverse in the overcomplexification of simplicity in communications within the field itself to help create one's professional persona in the first place. A growing problem in many fields, blah blah blah.

One tries to hope that things don't get as desperate for folks in MT as they must have been for that Korean stem-cell scientist who is in the news just now. Is it just a matter of time before somebody peers behind the curtain and sees the truth about Oz?

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at

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