Why *p>*f?

X99Lynx at aol.com X99Lynx at aol.com
Fri Jan 29 17:07:40 UTC 1999

In a message dated 1/29/99 10:56:03 AM, Larry Trask wrote:

<<Yes.  It is a historical occurrence which linguists discovered....
It is not possible to answer questions like these.>>

Thanks for explaining this.

Of course, I had two reasons for asking.  The first was to offer Mr Hubey a
problem in "external causes" that might be easily handled before the bell

(In a message dated 1/27/99 8:48:31 PM, M. Hubey wrote:
<<<If one is going to examine all the external forces that influenced language
in history, however, it would be best to bring one's lunch.>

Nah. An undergrad in linguistics will solve the problem before the bell

I thought this might be a good one.

My point about external cultural influences on language structure was that
they can be incredibly complex and unpredictable, and therefore not suited to
meaningful simulation models.  Simply because there is no telling where the
vector of change may come from.

In the case of *p>f, the non-linguistic cause could be anything.  And my point
is that such questions are at best on the fringes of linguistics and should
not interfere with the narrow but rigorous approach of the discipline.

<<We don't use the word `random'.  If we could observe the change in
progress, we would *probably* find that a handful of people began
pronouncing /p/ as [f], that some other people started to copy them for
some social reason, and that finally everyone was using the new
pronunciation.  This is the way most language changes appear to proceed when
we get the chance to watch them happening.>>

It seems that's all that needs to be said linguistically. But if we are truly
trying to figure "external causes," we couldn't just stop at that handful of
people who began pronouncing /p/ as [f].  We'd have to ask why.  Why did it
start?  If variance had started more than once, why did this particular
variant catch on?  Why did any variant catch on?  What social reason?
Fashion?  Totalitarism?  Did it represent a sub-culture or an affiliation?  Or
a imitation of a forign accent?  And it seems we don't have any any real
historical evidence to rely on.  Can we analogize modern social change to
prehistoric societies? Etc., etc., etc. (BTW, perhaps "random" could stand for
"it doesn't matter for our purposes," as it does in some other sciences.)

Going back to my original point to Mr. Hubey, <<If one is going to examine all
the external forces that influenced language in history, however, it would be
best to bring one's lunch.>>

Thankfully linguistics doesn't need to do any of that.  And does quite a good
job with the tools it has, from what I can see.

Steve Long

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