LINGUIST List 2.527

Tue 17 Sep 1991

Disc: Language Change

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Jim Hearne, function and purpose
  2. , 2.519 Language change and teleology
  3. , sound-change teleology?
  4. brian kariger, Language change and teleology

Message 1: function and purpose

Date: Mon, 16 Sep 91 17:17:09 PDT
From: Jim Hearne <>
Subject: function and purpose
Regarding teleological explanation and the terms `function' and
`purpose' I recommend anyone interested to look at _Teleological
Explanation_ (UC Press) before getting balled up in meaphysics.
Wright manages to analyse teleological explanations (including
ones appropriately described in terms of `purposes') as special
kinds of causal explanations.
			Jim Hearne
 			Western Washington University
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Message 2: 2.519 Language change and teleology

Date: Mon, 16 Sep 91 21:12:32 EDT
From: <>
Subject: 2.519 Language change and teleology
I don't know if this has been suggested yet in the ongoing discussion,
but the issues here are really factual, and one thing that seems
clear is that different kinds of changes have different causes. For
example, I would assume that a change like y -> g would only happne
in a situation where we have a dialect with g - y (before front vowels,
say), and a neighboring dialect without this change. Later, the speakers
of the dialect that has the change may hypercorrect and change all y's
to g's. It would also seem that a contentful definition of natural
could ultimately be arrived at by contrasting these two kinds of changes.
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Message 3: sound-change teleology?

Date: Mon, 16 Sep 91 20:10:38 CDT
Subject: sound-change teleology?
 I've been hanging back from the sound-change-teleology discussion
because I have a feeling that the question of teleology in sound change
-- regardless whether argued pro or con -- may be the wrong question.
 It seems to me that the teleology question tends to oversimplify sound change
as if it were a movement from point A to point B. It asks -- Does a language
"look" from point A to point B, "see" that the latter is a better point, and
"decide" to make the move, with the "intention" of future improvement? Or does
the language at point A "see" only its present situation, "want" to escape it,
and stumble over to the unknown point B?
 In my earlier reference to the Brownian motion and to the herd of
wildebeests, I meant to emphasize the role of _synchronic variation_
in sound change. If we think of each "point" in a phonology as being
surrounded by a "cloud" of permitted variations, then diachronic change
may consist only in choosing a different point in the cloud to represent
its focus. (Maybe a cognitivian can help me with the terminology here.)
 If we replace the movement-from-A-to-B view of sound change
with a more complex view that sees diachronic change as a selection from
the cloud of available synchronic variations, then we replace the single
question (why does the language go from A to B?) with at least two questions:
 1) Around phonological point P, why does the language permit synchronic
variations V1, V2, V3, but not V4, V5, V6? And...
 2) Among the permitted synchronic variations V1, V2, V3 --
why is V1 (but not V2 or V3) chosen to become a permanent change?
 I'll venture to guess that question (1) is partially answered by
some of the considerations of "naturalness" and continued intelligibility
that have been mentioned in this discussion (but no speakers know
which of the synchronic variations they adopt may become a future standard).
 Further, I'll venture to say that question (2) may depend more
on social than on linguistic factors, since between two potential dialects
starting from the same cloud of variations, different choices can be made.
I'm all for pushing internal, linguistic, explanations as far as they
will go, but I want also to recognize the likelihood that the direction
of some changes can be shaped by non-linguistic factors --
just as automobile tail-fins in the late 1950's were shaped by
non-aerodynamic factors (Postal 1968).
 Now bring the teleology discussion back in: how does it apply
to either of these two questions?
Lee Hartman ga5123siucvmb.bitnet
Department of Foreign Languages
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901 U.S.A.
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Message 4: Language change and teleology

Date: Tue, 17 Sep 91 02:05:56 PDT
From: brian kariger <>
Subject: Language change and teleology
I have some questions regarding the teleology debate:
In the foregoing discussion,
> bert peeters <>
>> I agree that sound change must be explained "in terms of origin"
>> (though this isn't enough).
> I don't understand. What else is there to be explained? Once one
> knows why a change originated, one has an explanation - although
> the explanatory process may have (will have) to be renewed, as due
> consideration is to be given to social factors and the like.
>> However, that doesn't preclude teleological explanation.
> Indeed, I would say it makes teleological explanation unnecessary.
Isn't neglecting teleologic explanation in this manner tantamount to
positing that there is absolutely no regularity in change, and that
no universals obtain? Speaking of efficient and final causation
(== intrinsic and teleologic, resp.) C.S. Peirce writes: efficient cause, detached from a final cause in the
 form of a law, would not even possess efficiency: it might
 exert itself, and something might follow _post hoc_, but
 not _propter hoc_; for _propter_ implies potential regularity.
 Now without law there is no regularity [.] (1.213) *1*
In denying teleology, do you mean to say that there is no potential
regularity actualized in sound change? Or that certain types of change
are not more likely to come about (``be actualized") in some systems
than in others? If so, how can we even explain their efficiency?
Cf. also Anttila, ``the comparative method works only to the
degree that sound change is regular." *2*
> 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 ...
> 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...
I think most would agree that language has no "goal, defined once
and for ever" (though Michael Shapiro in _The Sense of Change_(1991),
I believe, reports otherwise). What the argument turns on is the con-
ceptions of teleology; mine agrees nicely with that of Peirce's:
 It is, as I was saying, a widespread error to think that a
 "final cause" is necessarily a purpose. A purpose is merely
 that form of final cause which is most familiar to our ex-
 perience. ... If we are to conserve the truth of [Aristotle],
-> we must understand by final causation that mode of bringing
-> facts about according to which a general result is made to
-> come about, quite irrespective of any compulsion for it to
-> come about in this or that particular way; although the means
 may be adapted to the end. The general result may be brought
 about at one time in one way, and at another time in another
 way. Final causation does not determine in what particular
 way it is to be brought about, but only that the result shall
 have a certain general character. (1.211) *1*
I have in mind here changes like the `Germanic consonant shift',
where (in `classical' PIE theory)--
the PIE tenues became breathed spirants in PG:
 PIE p, t, k > PG f, T, x
the PIE mediae became PG tenues:
 PIE b, d, g > PG p, t, k
and the PIE mediae aspiratae became PG voiced spirants:
 PIE bh, dh, gh > PG B, D, G
As you can see, in each case the result has a general character:
we do NOT have random changes of class; and this is a kind of
economy _ipso facto_.
*1* Peirce, C.S. _Collected Papers_. Citations are by volume &
 paragraph number.
*2* Anttila, Raimo. ``The Type and the Comparative Method." In
 _Energeia und Ergon: Sprachliche Variation-Sprachgeschichte-
 Sprachtypologie, II: Das sprachtheoretische Denken Eugenio
 Coserius in der Diskussion (1), ed. H. Thun. 1988.
Brian Kariger
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