I don’t know what to make of Juliette Blevins’ ideas about language as an evolving system, not being an evolutionary anthropologist, but anything that “undermines a central tenet of modern Chomskyan linguistics: that Universal Grammar, an innate human cognitive capacity, plays a dominant role in shaping grammars” automatically awakens my interest, and I look forward to learning more about them. (Link via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


  1. The notion of using a more evolutionary model of language change is more closely linked to Salikoko Mufwene. He has a whole book on hte concept. He doesn’t go in for the phonology so much.
    Mufwene is a lot more interested in contact linguistics. His approach suggests that displaced communities that have to learn a new language tend to adopt and generalise the features of that language that most match their native language’s structures. I think he makes a pretty good case for it for creoles. Certainly Melanesian creole fits the model, but his case for the Black creoles in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans is also a very compelling account.
    What would be interesting would be to see it applied to French, Spanish and maybe even English in the UK. Two centuries ago, all those countries were a patchwork of distinct local languages – some more closely realted than others, and if syntactic features of those languages persist in regional dialects, it would make a compelling case for generalisation.
    As for phonology, many people have noticed that things like devoicing final consonants have reappeared in parallel all over the world. I am pretty down on universal grammar, but I might be willing to accept a physiological predisposition towards final devoicing wherever the semantic ambiguity this produces is minimal.
    The idea that some kinds of language changes can happen coincidentally in different places, and that similar changes can have similar consequences, isn’t that new either. My historical linguistics prof in Montreal built most of his course on the parallel development of articles in the evolution of vulgar Latin and their development – centuries later – in the evolution of Bulgarian. He claimed that the two language developed almost identical structural solutions to the problem, but I’ve forgotten the details.

  2. Doug Marmion says:
  3. Scott: Thanks for the Mufwene information; sounds plausible to me too.
    Doug: Not sure what you mean. The link works for me. I believe the pdf is just a pdf file of the same thing; at least that was the impression I got when I visited it.

  4. Doug Marmion says:

    Hi LanguageHat,
    the link didn’t work for me when I tried it (or for some others that tried it around the same time) so I assumed it was incorrect, but it must have been only temporarily down. Sorry.

  5. For another aspect of the evolutionary nature of language — how we acquired it in the first place — I can heartily recommend the excellent Carl Zimmer’s most recent essay, Building Gab. That distant clattering you hear is the sound of horns locking in academe: evolution in action, I suppose.

  6. Natural selection, of course, exists in languages as well as biology… two or more words often compete with each other in a language for the same meaning and in the end one wins out. In Linguistics these kinds of words are called “competing forms.”
    For example, in Old Spanish several words like rapoza “fox”, cán “dog”, hiniestra window” and “Rovrico “Roderick” competed with zorro, perro, ventana and Rodrigo but the latter four eventually won out in Modern Spanish. (In Judaeo-Spanish, however, rapoza is still used for “fox”).
    In English, Northern Middle English “they, their, them” eventually won out over Southern Middle English “hi, hir, hem” but the Southern English “church” prevailed over the North English “kirk”. Nowadays, North English “lad” and “lass” have been almost completely vanquished by Southern English boy and girl in both England and America.
    A Scientific American article published in 1952 said that strong verbs like “beaten” and “sung” and “thrown” are gradually disappearing from the English language and will be gone completely by about the year 2850 A.D. Not too long ago, I heard a little girl say “See the ball? I throwed it up in the air!” and I young boy say “I beated the game!” showing that, so far, the prediction of the Scientific American article is right on target.

  7. will be gone completely by about the year 2850 A.D.
    I wonder how they came up with that date?

  8. Language Hat,
    The Scientific American article was written by a British-born linguistics professor, Joshua Whatmough (1897-1964) who taught at Harvard near as I can tell. In the article he says that the 2850 date was calculated by one of his students, Robert Abernathy, but he doesn’t say how. While Scientific American is a good publication ,just as any other, what you usually get in it is a boiled down version of an original study. Nevertheless, I imagine that Abernathy’s original study is probably filed away somewhere in the dim recesses of the Harvard University archives.

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