Morphists and Adaptationists.

Via John Cowan (“Very accessible, and should provoke some good responses from David M!”), Martin Haspelmath’s Morphists and adaptationists in 19th century biology, and in modern linguistics: Some intriguing parallels:

Recently I’ve been reading up on various aspects of the history of biology, and I noted some similarities between biology and linguistics that I found quite amazing. Maybe historians of science will dispute my interpretations, but I cannot resist the temptation to draw some parallels between what I call “morphists” (scholars who emphasize pure “form”) and adaptationists in both biology and linguistics.

The alleged contrast between “formalists” and “functionalists” is well-known to most linguists (cf. Newmeyer 1998), but I never really understood it, and I don’t normally use the term “formalist”. (After all, everyone recognizes that languages have forms that need to be described – though it is true that some linguists seem to be completely oblivious of the often striking match between functions and forms.)

However, it’s clear that some linguists are interested in explaining the forms of languages with reference to their functions, and others tend to downplay or ignore the functions of grammatical patterns. So it’s interesting to see that in 19th century biology (before Darwin), there were two main approaches to understanding the similarities observed in comparative biology: what I call here morphism (the idea that pure form somehow determines what animals and plants look like), and adaptationism (the idea that the shapes of animals and plants are adapted to their environment, or “conditions of existence”).

Thanks, JC, and I too look forward to what DM has to say!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    While passing the time before DM’s response …

    “The Transcendental Anatomist” would be a brilliant title for some work of steampunk/supernatural fiction set in Victorian London (but not our Victorian London.) Hell, the plot practically writes itself …

  2. Stu Clayton says

    En attendant David, here’s a typo as cute pun in the article:

    # But our “Darwin” cannot be a historicist Darwin, because we found the historical solution to many of the observed homologies a long tome ago (well before Darwin).#

    By a small variation in one word of this serious article, an unexpected function emerges – to provoke laughter. Of course this function is equifinal with what comedians do.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Don’t hold back, it’s gonna be a few hours before I can read the paper. 🙂

    Recently I’ve been reading up on various aspects of the history of biology, and I noted some similarities between biology and linguistics that I found quite amazing.

    Of course. A lot has been written about this, starting with Darwin in the Origin itself – and it’s still not enough!

  4. Are we still en attendant in this thread?

    Can I add another Haspelmath paper: ‘The indeterminacy of word segmentation
    and the nature of morphology and syntax’.

    I’ve got a feeling I’ve seen this discussed before (Prof Mair on LLog had a piece about the notion of ‘word’ in Sinitic languages), so please redirect me.

    I’m finding Haspelmath’s difficulty in pinning down ‘word’ just too weak and nit-picky. Of course if you’re trying to define a term that applies across all languages, it’s going to have fuzzy edges in each particular language. Don’t you use the central definitions to decide wordness in the bulk of the language; then take problematic usages and chop up the bits that you’ve already established are words; then make some judgment calls about the leftovers; rinse; repeat. Isn’t that the hermeneutic method?

    Objecting that some languages don’t have a, um, word for ‘word’ (Haspelmath notes languages happily have a word for (proper) ‘name’) strikes me as falling into the trap of ‘no word for X’.

  5. Bathrobe says


    This is being discussed right now at “Not How Kids Speak” (

  6. Thanks @Bathrobe, I’ve just caught up with that, and it must be from there that I picked up the link to Haspelmath — over 24 hours ago! But that whole thread is just going too fast and furious, and I’m clearly not keeping up. And it’s not just in creoles that applying the definition of ‘word’ is problematic.

    I see the thread is now on to wordhood in Fijian. Having been there, I see it written in Latin script with spaces between the (something)s. Doubtless this is European imperialism of the worst sort.

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