Sum: term

Robert Whiting whiting at
Sat Jan 17 17:06:54 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
On Thu, 15 Jan 1998, Larry Trask wrote:
> ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
> A few days ago I posted a request for a term.  Once again, the
> phenomenon I wanted a name for was this: a change that leads to
> simplification in one domain often produces a simultaneous
> complication in another domain.
Having been a systems engineer in another life, I can testify that
this is a characteristic of many types of systems, not just language.
In short, if you try to fix ("cleanup") one part of a system, you stand
a good chance of screwing up some other part of the system.  Somewhere
there is going to be an inverse relationship that is going to thwart your
best intentions.  Anyone who has done much engineering or computer
programming will know what I am talking about.
> Anyway, here are the terms proposed, or most of them.  I omit a couple
> of totally facetious suggestions, and one or two which were so
> exceedingly long that I don't think they can be considered as terms.
> A couple of people, I think, thought that I was asking specifically
> for a label for the conversion of phonology into morphology, but in
> fact I have in mind something more general than that.
> STURTEVANT'S PARADOX (unspecified variation on)
> Right.  Now what do I do?  Call for a vote?  Organize a competition
> with five distinguished judges and a prize of two weeks in the PIE
> homeland of your choice?  Close my eyes and stick a pin?  Ask Roger
> Lass what the biologists call it?  Coin my own term and hope everybody
> buys the book and believes me?  Or should I just admit defeat and not
> include any term for this, on the not unreasonable ground that
> dictionaries shouldn't be including words that don't exist?
I'd like to propose yet another term, ISENTROPIC COMPENSATION.  This would
be a mechanism that acts to keep the overall entropy (measure of disorder)
of a system more or less constant.  Languages being natural systems, one
can imagine that entropy would be fairly constant across a given language.
There must be a maximum level of entropy that a language can tolerate in
terms of complexity, learnability, and comprehensibility (it has always
been my pet theory that Sumerian died out because its entropy exceeded
this level and it became incomprehensible to its own speakers).  There is
not necessarily any minimum entropy level to a language (designed
languages can have an entropy level close to zero), but as far as I know
(somebody will correct me if I am wrong), all natuaral language have some
areas of irregularity (high entropy).  It is quite possible that native
speakers subjectively resist any overall reduction of entropy in their
language as being unnatural (just as effective medicine should taste bad
and an effective disinfectant should sting when applied to a wound).  But
in any case, a reduction of entropy in one part of a system very
frequently causes a compensatory increase in another part causing the
overall system entropy to remain at about the same level.
Bob Whiting
whiting at

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