Author Topic: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change  (Read 9420 times)

Offline Daniel

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Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« on: December 21, 2013, 08:10:32 PM »
We all use the metaphors, and they're useful for explanatory purposes. But how well do the metaphors really apply (are we just picking relevant aspects?), and is it entirely metaphorical?

We might have discussed this a while back, but I'm thinking about it again.

The inconsistencies in the metaphor are probably due to applying it loosely. It isn't "languages" that evolve any more than "species" evolve. It's the individual idiolects and individuals in the population. In both fields we might say vaguely that a species/language has evolved, but that's a simplification. And once we recognize that, the metaphor seems to almost apply perfectly to language, perhaps even beyond metaphorically.

As I see it, there are three remaining differences:
  • Genetic inheritance is "nature", while language input is "nurture" (and we're not talking about UG / language faculty here obviously, because we don't have any relevant data on that ever changing)
  • Multilingualism is common, as is adult learning; individuals in a species don't change genetically mid-life and also don't typically represent cross-species DNA
  • The "reproduction" aspect is not asexual (one donor) or sexual (two donors) but broadly involves input from many speakers, although certainly the mother and father do typically contribute significantly
Beyond these points, almost everything else seems to line up.

There's another potential objection:
  • Natural selection doesn't operate on linguistic form for survival as it does in species
That's partly true. But:
1. It does to some basic degree-- expressiveness and complexity balance out-- grammaticalization and change. Some is random, though.
2. Most importantly, language is just one property of individuals, like hair color. Certainly there may be some broad reasons why blonde or brown hair is related to evolution, but at least after these genes exist it seems somewhat random-- language is equal, I'd say. If you speak English or speak Spanish, it's about the same as having different hair colors (except for nature vs. nurture, see above). The crucial point here is that it eliminates the thought "but wait, if a language is spoken by more people, doesn't it mean it's a better language?" -- no, not at all, it's just one of the traits of those people, and others likely contribute to why that language is carried along for the ride.


Any other objections you can think of?
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Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #1 on: December 22, 2013, 04:26:09 AM »
I agree that there is a type of selection that acts on language, to do with its learnability and complexity which are balanced out through iterated learning and self organization. 

The metaphor comes from the fact that they are both similar processes but acting on different materials - there will of course be difference because they are acting on different things.  'Evolution' simply means change over time in a population with variability.  Language's 'population' is of words and rules, and speakers are the engine that learn and use language, which changes it over time.

Both language and species are participating in this process of change over time through selection because of their variability.  Therefore they both exhibit this change over time.

You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #2 on: December 22, 2013, 04:47:14 AM »
See what I mean (in http://linguistforum.com/index.php?topic=76.msg237#new)?

If we stick to the code prejudice we will have to imagine all sorts of clever (for they ARE clever, as Daniel's theory about the French word salir was) theories to account for its changes to adapt to new situations.

But if we become aware of how human communication seems to work, then these problems disappear just as the fist disappears when we open our hands (Zen maxim).

Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #3 on: December 22, 2013, 04:54:40 AM »
Sorry Guijarro I don't understand what you mean!  Can you clarify?
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Offline freknu

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #4 on: December 22, 2013, 04:57:40 AM »
You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract

That's kind of what I first thought of when I first read djr's post. I thought of an experiment where small robots were given two basic features:

  • playing football (no, not handegg)
  • communication

These robots were not explicitly given a language, so every time the data was reset the game would begin with all the robots being unable to communicate or play as teams, chaotically going all over the place and appearing almost random.

Over time the robots would learn from each other and each team eventually converging on a single, mutually intelligible language. Each time it would be different, random, emerging from the co-operative interaction of the robots

Naturally, this is a highly simplified model and experiment of language, but what I find intriguing is how the language in this case is an emergent result of interaction.

I can't remember the exact details, but it was always this emergent property of language that really intrigued me. Why would human language be any different? Would we have developed such "complex" language if we were not also a very social animal?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #5 on: December 23, 2013, 01:33:06 AM »
Quote from: Cory
Language's 'population' is of words and rules, and speakers are the engine that learn and use language, which changes it over time.
Hm. That's not quite how I see it. That's interesting, given how this metaphor can be applied somewhat loosely.
I'd say the population is the individual idiolects ("I-languages" or whatever you want to call them).
In your version, what is the 'DNA'-- the people?

Quote
You might be interested in this article which talks about the self-organization of language, and specifically how complexity can arise in an artificial language system:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00540.x/abstract
I was aware of that volume and thought it looked interesting, but never got around to reading the whole thing. Thanks for reminding me. I hadn't noticed that article before :)

From a paper of mine:
Quote
Another line of research at the moment is exploring how learners, especially children, restructure input (Fedzechkina, Jaeger & Newport 2012; see also Hudson Kam & Newport 2009; Wonnacott et al. 2012); that is, instead of expecting perfect performance, the goal of the experiment is actually to expect the learners to change the language to suit communicative need and learning constraints. Although there are many directions in which that research should be pursued (a particularly fascinating one would be to see a large-scale repeated filtering process from raw artificial pseudo-language to a complete natural grammar, along the lines of what MacCallum, Mauchm Burt & Leroi (2012) have done for music)


Fedzechkina, M., Jaeger, T. F., & Newport, E. L. (2012). Language learners restructure their input to facilitate efficient communication. PNAS.

Hudson Kam, C. L., & Newport, E. L. (2009). Getting it right by getting it wrong: When learners change languages. Cognitive Psychology 59, 30-66.

Wonnacott, E., Boyd, J. K., Thomson, J., & Goldberg, A. E. (2012). Input effects on the acquisition of a novel phrasal construction in 5 year olds. Journal of Memory and Language 66, 458-478.

MacCallum, R., Mauch, M., Burt, A., & Leroi, A. (2012). Evolution of music by public choice. PNAS.
The last reference may be the most interesting if you haven't seen it yet. There's a website to view the music under discussion as well.



---

Guijarro, I'm not quite sure what you mean either (but I'm interested). I'm wondering about how "evolution" applies, not whether there's a specific problem or not.


---

Quote
I thought of an experiment where small robots were given two basic features:

    playing football (no, not handegg)
    communication


These robots were not explicitly given a language, so every time the data was reset the game would begin with all the robots being unable to communicate or play as teams, chaotically going all over the place and appearing almost random.

Over time the robots would learn from each other and each team eventually converging on a single, mutually intelligible language. Each time it would be different, random, emerging from the co-operative interaction of the robots
Is this a real experiment that was done? I haven't heard of it and I'd love to know more.

Quote
Naturally, this is a highly simplified model and experiment of language, but what I find intriguing is how the language in this case is an emergent result of interaction.
There are lots of theories of that; but of course some (neurological) base must exist for it to start.

Quote
I can't remember the exact details, but it was always this emergent property of language that really intrigued me. Why would human language be any different? Would we have developed such "complex" language if we were not also a very social animal?
Chomsky sees language as something internal in the mind, while you're describing it as the result of communication-- and I agree. The form is due to use. (The capability may be something else.)

John Hawkins (UC Davis and Cambridge) has some interesting theories about performance leading to competence, rather than the (ubiquitous) other way around that's so popular in Generativism. The "Performance grammar correspondence" is one of his theories. Interesting stuff.
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #6 on: December 23, 2013, 12:08:23 PM »

Dear Cory!

What Mercier and Sperber said in the summary of their paper (which I pasted the other day) seems to be reinforced by your desire to get some clarification from me. If I remember rightly, you and I have been debating this point long before you wrote your (excellent!) thesis which I quoted in my subsequent paper (in Spanish) on the subject written ages ago; it would seem, then, that our two points of view should be clear to each other with no need to clarify things whatsoever in our particular case.

However …

Now, since we are in a new place, where all the traces of our ideas have disappeared from view at one click, I will try and summarize as clearly as I may my position on this problem for you (and everyone else interested) to be able to forget it yet again as another just-so story (which, I am afraid, is what all our ideas are, given our present state of knowledge). I will concentrate on two points, an introductory one, and the crucial one:

1º) EVOLUTION:

Let me employ a very basic account on this topic (you are much more conversant with the real steps than I am, of course): I think that when we talk about EVOLUTION we figure out how proto-humans appeared in this world from other ancestors related to apes; and then, we try and establish how real humans evolved from those proto-humans. 

But once humans are around, we tend to forget about evolutionary steps.  We don’t imagine Romans evolving from, say, Ligurians, nor, subsequently, Italians, French, Rumanian, Portuguese, Catalans, etc., from Romans, etc. We change the term EVOLUTION and call this changing process HISTORY.

If you agree (generally speaking) on the two points above, tell me then on what grounds you seem to use the same word EVOLUTION to point to the appearance of human language and also for the changes that occur in that same human language in the course of time, from the Proto-Germanic to Germanic, to English, etc.

For me, then, it is quite clear, that there are two such processes also in language, and that extending the term EVOLUTION to cover the HISTORICAL changes would very much look like the (to me, at least!)  ludicrous intent to show how, say, Macbeth and his subjects EVOLVED into Alex Salmond and his nationalist compatriots.

Therefore, I never talk about the EVOLUTION of languages, but only about the HISTORY of their changes.

2º) LANGUAGE (L1, L2 and L3)

However, surely, there was a time where no LANGUAGE whatsoever existed; how come it exists now-a-day? This, indeed, is a problem that may be tackled by an EVOLUTIONARY account.

Unluckily, a very great linguist of our time, with a lot of followers, Chomsky, is universally thought to have claimed that language did not evolve; the story goes that he maintained it appeared abruptly as some jack-in-the-box. Happily (for me, who am a chomskyan), I have an e-mail of his own where he strongly and crossly objects to that universal rumour. I will paste it here, as indeed, I have already done it in several forums before, but, for the same reasons that Marcier & Sperber pointed to in their paper, to no avail. The rumour keeps growing like a snowball and nobody ever doubts that Chomsky is culprit of that misdeanour.  Such is life!

Quote
I am afraid you have misinterpreted both my past and present views on natural selection and human language. You say: “Chomsky seems not to have changed his views on the lack of a role for natural selection in the origin of language”.

That statement presupposes that on some earlier occasion I expressed “views on the lack of a role for natural selection in the origin of language”. I have never expressed such views in the past. If you think otherwise, try to find the statement –by me, that is; not by someone repeating something they think they heard in the common room about what someone was told I said somewhere.

Nor is such a view expressed in the statement you cite. On the contrary, that statement explicitly presupposes that natural selection is operative in this case (as in others). The statement raises questions about 'the “channel” within which natural selection proceeds'. That natural selection selection proceeds within such a “channel” is too obvious to have been questioned by anyone. Only the most extreme dogmatists would produce a priori declarations about its role in any particular case, whether it is virus shells, slime molds, bones of the middle ear, infrared vision, or whatever.
As before, in the excerpt you cite I take no particular stand on the matter, for the simple and sufficient reason that virtually nothing significant is known –even about vastly simpler questions, such as the evolutionary origins of the waggle dance of honeybees. The excerpt to which you refer makes some tentative suggestions about what may be useful directions to pursue in seeking to determine how these various factors interact in the case of natural language.

Unfortunately, in the past few years a curious religious cult has emerged, which would have appalled Darwin. Members are enjoined to chant “natural selection” repeatedly from the mutual admiration society, even if there is no substantive content; as an exercise, you might take some of the mantras and ask how they would if the properties of natural language –pick the simplest one you like– were to turn out to be radically different from what is now supposed. And you might also want to have a look at the biological literature on the evolution of the waggle dance, or vervet calls, or songbirds. A requirement for membership in the cult, it seems, is to circulate claims that have been concocted about various symbolic figures cast as “enemies”, which are circulated and repeated, based on little more than gossip in the corridors. It's not an attractive picture, to put it mildly

Noam Chomsky

These are his words. Now, everyone may go on claiming what they think they believe Chomsky said. What I think he claims, though, is that we (ALL!) know yet very little about the evolutionary process that shaped our human language to muse about it inventing just-so-stories, as I am indeed going to attempt. Everybody knows Chomsky tries to describe the English language as it is NOW in his part of the World; he does not claim to be studying language historically (or geographically, for that matter), although there is a vast knowledge about these changes and differences.  Why should he be concerned with a process from which we still possess such a lack of evidence? We may just as well suppose that language is an unchanging object and try to describe it.

That’s fair enough for me.

But I am not as serious and as intelligent as Chomsky. And although I believe he is right in limiting his scientific effort, I feel like musing my own just-so story which, to me, at least, makes sense as framed in my overall conception of human communication, which is not necessarily the conception of other people –and I suppose, correct me if I am wrong, though, you to be one of those people.

To begin with, I imagine that communication among apes (and other species) is very similar to our own. By acting in a certain way, individuals are able to point to things or events out there; some are even able to point to basic desires and longings (such as foraging for food, or indulging in mating behavior). This pointing makes those things manifest to others and so some kind of joint action may result.

Some species are able (as well) to learn from experience (in which, some communicated aspects may be included). That is, they seem to have evolved a faculty whereby they, not only perceive that a given F(act) exists, but are able to embed another into it. So, when there is the F that Godzilla has screamed it points to the F that there is danger. We could represent it like this: [F (F)].

My just-so-story imagines that a very small mutation has occurred in human beings, which has allowed us to establish enormous chains of embedded facts, one inside the other. This seems to be a faculty that appears only in our species and, as such, gives us an enormous power to organize aspects of our surrounding environment and our inner states of mind relating them in all sorts of ways. That is, I believe that this small mutation is the origin of what has been known as the human soul, which some of us now names the human mind. 

This (seemingly unique human) faculty, then, is what has created our human LANGUAGE (the formal device with which, through mental representations, we are able to organize our surroundings and our relations towards them). I have called it LANGUAGE 1, and it is the translation of the Spanish word LENGUAJE. I have no clue as to what was the step by step process that resulted in that faculty; it may have been as Michael A. K. Halliday imagined, namely, steps covering distinct needs of individuals: (1) the instrumental step, where language serves to get things done: come! Go!, Watch up, etc., This step is shared with other animal species. (2)The regulatory step, closely related to the first one, but where embedding begins to show: [I say, want, desire, etc. (do this)]. (3) Interactional step, where "I" is extended to other individuals, showing for instance who belongs to our world, or not, etc. (4) Personal step, where language is used by an individual to express her awareness of herself and, by opposition, of the environment. (5)  The heuristic step, whereby the individual is able to look at language as an appropriate tool to be explored. (6) The imaginative step in which individuals may create world of their own.  And (7), the representational, in which language is used to make mental representations of anything that happens to them. (I may have given a too sketchy account of Halliday’s  seven evolutionary functions. If interested in having a deeper account, you may consult this model in his 1973 beautiful little book, Explorations in the Functions of Language (Edward Arnold).)

In any case, this hallidayan story, or any other which offers a likely narrative, will serve. In fact, my using of his ideas can be considered problematic in a chomskyan world, since both researchers have an altogether different view of how language works. The important thing to notice here, though, is that the REAL unique characteristic of this human language (L1) is that it offers in the last step an organized set of related mental representations.

 In my view, then, the fact that humans communicate with each other by behaving in one way or another (using vocal sounds is a form of behaviour, which is shared by other species) does not present an important problem for our just-so-stories, unless we are all set into believing that this linguistic behaviour becomes coded and is thereafter the crucial aspect of our human communicative behaviour.

What seems to happen, though, is that some of those L1 characteristics become modularized and act as a universal sieve through which subsequent communicative linguistic experiences are percolated thereby creating a universal structure of relationships which I call LENGUA (L2) and some of you, English speaking people, name Faculty of Language (wide or restricted, in recent chomskyan terms). This modularized device, like the rest of centres of immediate reaction (i.e., modules) helps individuals to acquire the linguistic code of their social environment and make it newly formatted module, except in terminology, where different and new words and meanings are always popping out. The final linguistic module is what I call IDIOMA (L3). Of course, like everything I mention here, the processes are a lot more complicated, but this is long enough, I am afraid.

Now, my final point is this: the linguistic code that we modularize is just one of the many tools humans have to make their inner mental states apparent to other individuals. A very handy tool, certainly, but NOT (in my view, that is) the crucial element in achieving communicative effects. The linguistic code is so wide and complicated for two main reasons: (1) because with it we do not only point to things and events out there, but also to inner representations inhabiting our minds, with all their shades and differences; (2) this enormous richness has been achieved by the unique human way to use these codes as tools to point to their intentional messages. We do not use the coding-decoding faculty as the only way to achieve our communicative efforts, but as a helping device in acquiring accuracy. Our communication is crucially inferential: we normally guess what the communicative intentions of others are (Grice called it, “reading the mind” faculty) by using all kinds of cues from the context of communication, one of them is, naturally the linguistic material we are able to express ), and we do it reasonably well.  If we need a new meaning, we act in a way to make it clear to others even using the same coded material but giving it a new function. Thus, languages evolve, new meanings are acquired and vast vocabularies are created over time.

To summarize all this:

1º) I don’t think that the origins of the coded L3 are interesting in any way to answer the question of why we humans communicate differently than other species. This endeavour is, in my view, the result of a wrong perspective, namely, the communication as a (complex) coded activity.

2º) What IS interesting is to figure out a nice and coherent just-so-story about the change our species achieved from pointing to things out there and some feelings inside, like other species are able to do, to point mainly to aspects of our mental life. I used Halliday’s story, but any other might do instead.  I believe we are a long way off to find a “real” answer to this problem, for mental activity leaves no traces and it is mighty hard to find clear evidence for this.

3º) What IS interesting too is to find how and why humans started to use a physical object (i.e., vocal noise) to represent publicly their mental representations organized in L1. I have suggested elsewhere that this could have been a symbiotic process as described by Lynn Margulis, but this would require another posting, and I am sure you have had more than enough.

(I will understand if, from now on you sort of shun my possible "short and simple explanations"!. Really, I sympathise!)

Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #7 on: December 23, 2013, 02:49:29 PM »
I hope you don't find it rude that I don't read the above post in its entirety Guijarro, but I'm even more confused now - this thread is about the similarities between language change and biological evolution, which is often used as a metaphor for the former.  Your post read:
See what I mean (in http://linguistforum.com/index.php?topic=76.msg237#new)?

If we stick to the code prejudice we will have to imagine all sorts of clever (for they ARE clever, as Daniel's theory about the French word salir was) theories to account for its changes to adapt to new situations.

But if we become aware of how human communication seems to work, then these problems disappear just as the fist disappears when we open our hands (Zen maxim).

which I noted that I didn't understand what it referred to (and I see that I'm not the only one).  I was hoping for a clarification, perhaps a 'simplification' of your stance (if that's what your post was illustrating), but you seem to have gone far so back in the history of our discussions that I don't follow how it relates to what we are even talking about now!

Could you perhaps rephrase what you meant in your first post in this thread, that being the original piece I didn't understand what you meant, and perhaps in less than 400 words or so?
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #8 on: December 23, 2013, 02:58:23 PM »
Right. I don't see what this has to do with evolution and language. It's fine for another discussion. Are we missing something, Guijarro?
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Offline Guijarro

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #9 on: December 24, 2013, 12:36:11 AM »
I suppose I have lost my last neuron. I don't understand what you don't understand. Sorry.
My stance on evolution and language is very clear: language does not evolve as Romans did not evolve into Spaniards. However, human communication is different from that of the other species. This has nothing to do with our coding system, since all coded systems are alike (except in volume). It has to do with how we USE the coding system. This use is responsible for the development of languages. If we used the coding system as the only means to communicate, any change, no matter how small, would be a hindrance to communication. Since we rely on inference, changes do not prevent communication. On the contrary, they help expand the code adapting it to every situation.

I am not able to explain this in any other way. Sorry to have written such a long posting for nothing but to bore you. I hope you pardon me, for it is X-mas eve, and we should forgive other people's misdemeanour.

Merry Christmas, and forget about my musings.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 12:38:02 AM by Guijarro »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #10 on: December 24, 2013, 01:44:02 AM »
No, actually that now makes sense.

I had intended to specifically talk about the form of language (say, English in contrast to Spanish), not the ability to speak. Certainly related to the implications and inferences in Pragmatics, the form is not all that there is to language. But I wonder how much the form of language evolves in the way that organisms evolve.

Quote
My stance on evolution and language is very clear: language does not evolve as Romans did not evolve into Spaniards.
I'm making the exact opposite point, but I believe for a different definition of "language". Latin evolved into Spanish in form through grammaticalization and other changes. The question is how well that biological metaphor applies to the form of language-- it's surely imperfect, but does it generally work out?
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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #11 on: December 24, 2013, 02:04:01 AM »
For the reasons described above, I think that we are not reasonably coherent in applying the notion of EVOLUTION to explain the development of any given language. There is another concept that seems to adapt itself better to the development of languages: HISTORY.

But if you use the term evolution to point to the concept of HISTORY, I will have to admit that this is a possible new use which may have some advantage for you although I am unable to grasp it.

It is like using the word red to apply to the concept POLITICAL LEFT. Unreasonable things like that occur all the time, and make our languages change and expand their vocabulary.

I, for one, must accept that reason is not usually applicable in this area!

Offline Corybobory

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #12 on: December 24, 2013, 02:33:31 AM »
Some Romans did evolve into Spaniards though...? Romans had children in the area that is now Spain, and they had children and they had children and they had children etc, and the one who stayed in Spain eventually would have been considered Spaniards.  Unless I'm missing something and this is just history like you say and not 'change over time' ie evolution?
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Offline Daniel

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #13 on: December 24, 2013, 02:35:46 AM »
Quote
For the reasons described above, I think that we are not reasonably coherent in applying the notion of EVOLUTION to explain the development of any given language. There is another concept that seems to adapt itself better to the development of languages: HISTORY.
Why? What is biological evolution but chance, change, use and selection-- all parts of history.
Are you claiming that dinosaurs, early human-like apes, and Darwin's finches are not part of history?
That's exactly what I'm claiming. Or rather, asking. I'm not yet intending to claim it. I'm wondering out loud.



Evolution: the replacement of older forms with newer forms due to random mutation and then successful transmission to future generations.

That simple version obviously applies to organisms and linguistic forms. A more complicated version might not, and that's what I'm wondering-- where is the line drawn?

Darwin's finches evolved on separate islands. The Polynesian languages did the same.
Darwin's finches had different colors. The Polynesian languages have different phonemes.
Darwin's finches were ultimately related but in distinct groups (species). The Polynesian languages are ultimate related but form distinct groups (of dialects = languages).


Certainly at least pre-scientifically the metaphor works very well! You must agree with that at least, right?

So where does it fail? I'm not sure.
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Offline freknu

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Re: Extent of parallelism between evolution and language change
« Reply #14 on: December 24, 2013, 02:41:01 AM »
I think Guijarro is confusing evolution and natural selection.