Theo Vennemann tvn at cis.uni-muenchen.de
Mon Jan 12 20:17:09 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Today I opened the following message signed by Larry Trask.
I would like to respond.
>----------------------------Original message----------------------------
>I'm looking for a term.  The phenomenon in question is extremely
>familiar, but I don't know of an accepted name for it.
>The phenomenon is this: a linguistic change which simplifies one
>subsystem of a language may complicate another subsystem.
>A typical example is the history of Spanish mid vowels.  Earlier
>Spanish had two low-mid vowels and two high-mid vowels; the low-mid
>vowels were *automatically* diphthongized under stress, while the
>high-mid vowels were not.  But then the two low-mid vowels merged
>with the two higher ones.  This change simplified the phonological
>system by removing two phonemes, but it greatly complicated the
>morphology: the formerly automatic and transparent diphthongizations
>became totally unpredictable and opaque, since some instances of the
>new /e/ and /o/ diphthongized while others did not.
>Does anybody know of an accepted label for this phenomenon, which I
>suppose we might elevate to the status of a "principle"?  If not,
>wuld anybody like to propose one?
Doesn't the example given above fall under the principle that all lan-
guage change is LOCAL improvement, i.e. change on the parameter
it is working on (and may thus cause complications on other parame-
See "Language change as language improvement", in Vincenzo Orioles,
ed., Modelli esplicativi della diacronia linguistica: Atti del Convegno
della Società Italiana di Glottologia, Pavia, 15-17 settembre 1988. Pisa
(Giardini Editori e Stampatori), 1989, 11-35. Reprinted in: Language
change as language improvement", in Charles Jones, ed., Historical
linguistics: Problems and perspectives. London (Longman), 1993,
The consequence is so self-evident that I do not really think a name is
needed. If things were different, languages would be optimal on all
parameters, which is impossible. Thus, the principle also follows
from the observation that languages keep an overall identical level
of complexity, at least as long as we do not talk about language de-
velopment in terms of the evolution of the species.
One could say that language change is, in general, blind to its own side
effects.Thus, if a name were needed, one could call it the blindness
principle. Or if it is to be emphasised that the principle only looks in
its own direction, but neither left nor right, one could call it the
principle of tunnel vision.
Theo Vennemann,
12 January 1998.

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