LINGUIST List 2.519

Mon 16 Sep 1991

Disc: Language change and teleology

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  1. Stephen P Spackman, Language change and teleology
  2. bert peeters, Teleology

Message 1: Language change and teleology

Date: Sat, 14 Sep 91 14:50:51 -0500
From: Stephen P Spackman <>
Subject: Language change and teleology
ae The discussion is about Martinet and such quotes as
ne "une langue change parce qu'elle fonctionne".
|> 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.
|[...] 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").
It would appear, however, to capture the contrapositive of the
quotation: if a language doesn't work, it will not change (-: not
meaning to attribute volition to the language through my use of "will"
| 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".
My impression is that "fonctionner" is a bit broader than "function";
it's used of machines and programmes as well as abstract schemes; in
particular it may be not quite as lacking in dynamism as the English.
If I were speaking of an electric drill (which admittedly deteriorates
through use) - or some fabulous software package that "learns" one's
workhabits - it wouldn't sound so odd to say that it changes because
it operates/runs/functions/works. Saying that it changes to
operate/run/function/work would be a different idea - and would also
sound just as teleological, to those who would hear it that way.
In fact, it is simply a point of physics: what works, changes.
| 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.
That depends on who supplies the scale, of course. If EVERYONE is
allowed to say this, and not just the philosopher, that rings fades -
as Peeters has noted in this forum.
| 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.
Most people still understand biological evolution in this way, too; I
don't think this particular class of misunderstanding ever requires
specific nurturing.
|> 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.
Prima facie, this would appear to apply neatly to processes of fashion
but not at all to those of necessity; but perhaps Peeters feels that a
person's culinary tastes are subject to global coherence constraints?
In which case the analogy is quite thorough and elegant.
|> 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.
"Strategy" is a word also used in biology, with a non-teleological
sense. A misunderstanding occurs; next time you use a different word.
Where's the teleology in that? Yet you still "employ" a "strategy",
"in order" to "avoid" "future" problems. (Compare, "Suffer a reaction
against past problems," which would be equally apt in this context.)
stephen p spackman Center for Information and Language Studies University of Chicago
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Message 2: Teleology

Date: Sun, 15 Sep 91 12:19:06 +1000
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: Teleology
For now, it seems, Nyman is winning. But I've got good news for all those
non-teleologists out there who haven't spoken out (hopefully their silence
is not a sign of their non-existence!): I'll be back. I haven't given up,
but I have a number of ideas which I think I will write up as a paper.
Once that's done, I'll let LINGUIST-subscribers know about it.
I'm running for cover now, but there will be another offensive. :-)
Dr Bert Peeters Tel: +61 02 202344
Department of Modern Languages 002 202344
University of Tasmania at Hobart Fax: 002 202186
GPO Box 252C
Hobart TAS 7001
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