LINGUIST List 2.512

Sat 14 Sep 1991

Disc: Sound-Change and Teleology

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  1. "Michael Kac", Re: 2.490 Sound-Change
  2. , Language change and teleology

Message 1: Re: 2.490 Sound-Change

Date: Thu, 12 Sep 91 19:21:16 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 2.490 Sound-Change
I'm not going to jump into the teleology debate, but as I've been following
it I occasionally see the terms *function* and *purpose* used interchangeably.
This seems problematical to me since *purpose* does appear to be a teleologi-
cal term to a greater degree than *function* does. Example: 'The ___ of the
kidneys is to ...' We can talk about the function of the kidneys (that is,
what they actually do) without attributing them a purpose. Might some of
the difficulties in the debate over 'functional' explanations have to do
with this fact?
Michael Kac
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Message 2: Language change and teleology

Date: Sat, 14 Sep 1991 12:30 EET
Subject: Language change and teleology
> From: bert peeters <>
> Subject: Teleology and sound change
> The first /passage from Martinet/ tells us why certain changes DO NOT take
> place,
Here, the non-implementation of a given change is presented
as an intentional "omissive" action. Is forbearance from
implementing a sound change dealt with in non-teleological terms
in Martinet's "final formulation"?
> the second one is meant to explain why LANGUAGES as such change.
> The argument is that as soon as languages do not function anymore - do
> not serve communicative purposes anymore - they will stop changing and
> become extinct.
This is a bit perplexing. I find it difficult to relate "become extinct"
to "function" (glossed as 'serve communicative purposes'). It seems
clear enough that if there are no users to use L as a native language,
L will become extinct. But this isn't, I guess, the idea carried by
the verb "function" (or French "fonctionner"). Language USE causes
language CHANGE; and it is CHANGE that keeps language FUNCTIONing.
So, in order to function, language has to change. I still fail to
see why Martinet writes (in Evolution des langues, 1975, p. 12):
"une langue change parce qu'elle fonctionne" instead of "une langue
change pour fonctionner".
 By the way (1), according to Martinet, language qua tool of
communication ameliorates in use (see Peeters, La Linguistique
19, 1983, p.114-5). Amelioration has of course a teleological ring in it.
 By the way (2), Martinet has so many times been regarded as a
teleologist (even from the '50ies on) by distinguished scholars
that something in his wording must have given the (erroneous,
accroding to Peeters, op.cit., p.113) impression.
> An analogy with eating may be in place. At the synchronical level, one
> may say that humans eat in order to stay alive (teleology? yes, in some
> sense). But once one studies why dishes do not always remain the same,
> the explanation is obviously not teleological at all: they change
> because our culinary tastes are changing - because we need a change.
Let me construe this analogy by replacing "eat" by "speak": One
may say that humans speak in order to communicate. But once one
studies why topics do not always remain the same, the explanation is
obviously not teleological at all: they change because our conversational
tastes are changing.
 Topics (or dishes) are no tools (whereas language is, on/in Martinet's
opinion, a tool of communication). The analogy looks spurious.
> As in language there is no goal, defined once
> and for ever, and agreed upon by all the speakers of a language, even at
> a subconscious level, teleology must lead to anarchy - in the area of
> language change (..).
It is true that language has no definitive goal/telos, agreed upon by all
speakers of a language. The goal(s) of linguistic activity are rather
down-to-earth, relating to the functioning of language as a communicative
tool. But speaking of matters transcendental, consider phenomena labelled
as "drift" in linguistic literature. Linguistic drifts are phenomena whose
supra-individual rationality may be established ex post facto. In order
to cope with phenomena like that, Adam Smith created his "invisible hand"
concept. Cf. also Rudi Keller's book on *Sprachwandel: Von der unsichtbaren
Hand der Sprache*, Tu"bingen: Francke (1990). Of course, the "invisible
hand" may lead to dysfunction (cf. Keller's "phenomena of the third kind"):
e.g. traffic jam results from human actions, yet it is intended
by no one (I hope). I accept Peeters's claim that teleology leads
to anarchy, just in case /sic!/ anarchy refers to phenomena of the
third kind. But notice that only part of the invisible hand phenomena are
dysfunctional: linguistic drifts are functional, or at least they aren't
> (..) In the case of language
> change, simplicity may seem to be a common goal. But what is simple for
> one speaker is not necessarily simple for the next; we may have different
> simplicities in mind and set off different changes, but the fact that our
> languages are not too bad after all generally stops us from doing so (ex-
> cept when communicative needs are so pressing that we cannot but give in).
Instead of simplicity it might be more fruitful to speak of naturalness.
Notice that the human inertia relates to the naturalness discussion
that has been going on in the Linguist List.
> I also believe that it is unfair to accuse Martinet of blindness as far
> as interrelatedness of language subsystems is concerned. One example that
> comes immediately to mind is where he talks about the strategies used
> by speakers when the opposition between the two a's in French (anterior
> and posterior) started breaking up: there was lexical substitution (ta^che
> being more and more often replaced with travail, devoir, boulot; las being
> replaced with fatigue', etc. - in order to prevent misunderstanding as
> there are words that used to differ only with respect to the nature of the
> vowel: tache = spot (without a circumflex); la` = there)
I'm aware of the fact that Andre' Martinet, one of the greatest
linguists of our century, isn't blind to what characterizes the
existence of human language. The above is a nice example of teleological
explanation. Notice also the word "strategy", a teleological concept.
It may be the case that part of our disagreement is of terminological nature.
Homoeostasis, for example, would probably be regarded as a kind of
(short-term) teleology by Josef Vachek, whereas Martinet is likely
to consider homoeostatic phenomena (such as his economy qua equilibrium)
as non-teleological. I find nothing objectionable in speaking of
(sub)system-specific teleologies. For instance, the proper function
of phonemes consists in being distinctive; this can be taken to be
a functional teleology of the phonological subsystem.
 Martti Nyman (University of Helsinki, Finland)
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