LINGUIST List 2.440

Mon 26 Aug 1991

Disc: Wh-, Sound Change

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  1. , A Clarification on "Why wh-?"
  2. "Mark Durie", Why "wh-"
  3. Tom Lai, Sound change

Message 1: A Clarification on "Why wh-?"

Date: Mon, 26 Aug 91 08:01:30 EDT
From: <>
Subject: A Clarification on "Why wh-?"
I see I need to clarify what I said about sound change. I didn't
mean to imply that we don't know why sound changes occur; we do, or
at least we all think we do, which amounts to the same thing in
science. Bert Peeters is quite right in citing Martinet, and there
are plenty of others who have made good points in this area.
What I *did* mean to say is that we don't know - indeed, we have
almost no knowledge at all on the subject - why the sound changes
that occur _do_so_the_way_they_do_. Why, for instance, did Grimm's
Law work the way it did, instead of some other way? Why were
aspirates retained in Greek but not in Germanic? Why did the
short vowels neutralize in Sanskrit? Why did the velar stops
fricate in the Satem languages? All of these are phonological
changes that have been well-known for over a century, but we still
don't have any explanation for why they, and not some other
set of changes, actually occurred. And these are only a few;
there are thousands of attested, documented sound changes in
the languages of the world, and millions of unattested ones.
We con't understand why any of them occurred, even when we've got
tons of data on them.
Even given that languages are going to vary, and even that a change
is going to occur, we have no theory whatsoever - beyond the usual
platitudes about "ingroup solidarity", which don't speak to the
nature of the change either - that will allow us even to explain
ex post facto (let alone predict in advance) that there would be
some benefit to an individual speaker of a language in deaspirating
stops, or devoicing voiced stops, or fricating voiceless stops -
to return to Grimm's Law - in one cultural group, but not in another.
That's what I meant by saying that we have no concept in linguistic
evolution equivalent to the role that natural selection plays in
biological evolution. An evolutionary biologist can form and
test hypotheses about selectional benefits, adaptations, niches,
survival value, and so on. But we can't, because we don't have
that kind of theory. This is not necessarily a tragedy; it may
perhaps be that language change simply isn't the same kind of thing
as biological evolution. What I find uncomfortable is that we
don't even know whether *that's* true.
 John Lawler
 University of Michigan userll3numichub.bitnet
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Message 2: Why "wh-"

Date: 26 Aug 91 10:10:21 U
From: "Mark Durie" <>
Subject: Why "wh-"
 Reply to: Why "wh-"
There is a more general, and in a sense more trivial, answer to why 'wh-'.
These words form a grammatical category, with shared formal and functional
properties. As such they are susceptible to developing and maintaining
distinctive formal marking of this kind. Other, unrelated languages have
similar formal devices for distinguishing their 'wh' category (e.g. ASL).
An important reference is Wierzbicka's chapter on the 'ignorative' in her book
'Lingua Mentalis'.
Mark Durie
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Message 3: Sound change

Date: Mon, 26 Aug 91 10:49 +8
Subject: Sound change
Michael Kac writes:
>In regard to the nascent discussion as to why sound change occurs, I wonder
>if the more perplexing question is why it DOESN'T occur. Why, for example,
>are there still languages (English, for one) in which you can get velars be-
>fore front vowels?
Isn't it generally held by linguists (phoneticians and phonologists in
particular) that different combinations of speech sound are equally possible?
Back to the issue of why sound change occurs, I would like to refer to Labov,
W. 1963. "The Social Motivation of a Sound Change". In Labov, W. 1972.
_Sociolinguistic Patterns_. Philadelphia: U. Penn. Press.
I do not call myself a sociolinguist, but I subscribe to the view that
linguistic change is a function of, inter alia, extra-linguistic factors.
In other words, sound change is not motivated by purely linguistic factors
Tom Lai,
City Polytechnic of Hong Kong
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