Monday, June 12, 2006

Uniformitarianism in Linguistics

Pursuing my line of investigation into the lineage of Ferdinand de Saussure and the influence of geology on linguistics I have discovered this site which discusses how the concept of uniformitarianism, originally applied solely in the geological sciences, particularly by Charles Lyell, began to find usage in linguistics. In fact, it was Lyell himself who, in Chapter 23 of his book 'The Antiquity of Man' first compared the origin and development of languages and species. Lyell draws a number of conclusions:

A number of languages may have a common ancestor language that is no longer spoken, but which can be identified based on common word roots in the daughter languages.

A dialect becomes a distinct language when speakers of two dialects are no longer able to effectively communicate. He draws an analogy with the test of different species in which they are considered distinct if unable to produce fertile hybrids.

Races change more slowly than languages. Over a period of a thousand years, a language has typically changed to the point where it is no longer comprehensible to the same race that has always spoken it.

Areas that are geographically remote and mountainous can produce many distinct languages. Lyell quotes the seventy languages of the Caucases, but reference could equally be made to the forested mountain valleys of Papua New Guinea.

Lack of evidence for the derivation of living languages from dead ones does not prove that one did not evolve from the other: "to question the theory of all known languages being derivative on the ground that we can rarely trace a passage from the ancient to the modern through all the dialects which must have flourished one after the other in the intermediate ages, implies a want of reflection on the laws which govern the recording as well as the obliterating processes."

Although language seems unchanging, new words are creeping in all the time and changing them. It is thus the slowness of language change which makes it undetectable.

The common vocabulary pool is limited, therefore new words must displace old ones. Terms and dialects struggle against each other for existence. This is the motor for change.

Languages spread over a wide area and spoken by large numbers of people will have longer lifespans. Standardisation may attempt to arrest language development, but popular writers continue to evolve the language (c.f. Irving Welsh).

That silent letters, once useful in the parent speech, have been aptly compared to rudimentary organs in living beings, which have at some former period been more fully developed, having had their proper functions to perform in the organisation of a remote progenitor (this was Darwin's idea).

Isolated languages can cease to develop. Peoples that trade abroad tend to have languages that evolve rapidly, taking in new terms, for example, the isolated, unevolved Icelandic tongue as compared to the evolved Norwegian from which it is derived.

The ability of a language to adapt to new wants is fundamental in its survival. This may be compared to the ability of a certain genetic mix to survive a given environment,

Languages evolve and become more sophisticated. This may be seen as analogous to the evolution of simple organisms into more complex ones.


Lyell's interest was to shed light on what happened to species, and thought to do this by using languages as an analogy. Thinking of language in this way allows us to see it as a living entity. An entity that can have a moment of birth and a moment of death. Mankind is the environment in which the language lives. Languages have to compete inside the human mind. If a language does not serve well, like a dinosaur, it will become extinct. Successful languages thrive on the mutations which allow them to adapt.

Lyell's Chapter 23 began with a quotation from Prof. Max Muller. The next year Muller returned the compliment by quoting Lyell and in the same work took account of Lyell's ideas in a much profounder way. For in an earlier chapter (Ch. 2) he virtually incorporated uniformitarianism into linguistics, by formulating two principles on which the science of language rests, namely, that what is real in modern formations must be admitted as possible in more ancient formations, and that what has been found to be true on a small scale may be true on a large scale.

I think that Muller's ideas serve as a precursor for more recent theories postulated by Chomsky that there is an underlying deep structure to languages which are common to all languages ("what has been found to be true on a small scale may be true on a large scale") and that these deep structures may be indicative of the workings of mind ("what is real in modern formations must be admitted as possible in more ancient formations"). You can read more about structuralism in linguistics here.

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The same site also mentions that besides the major influence of uniformitarianism, linguistics shows influence from geology in two minor ways, namely, in its metaphors "substratum" and "linguistic paleontology". Thought on linguistic paleontology is particularly interesting since it comes from an exclusively Swiss circle of thinkers including Pictet (1859-63); Techmer (1880), Saussure (1922) and Nehring (1931). The history of the latter metaphor may involve some connection between A. Pictet (1799-1875) and F.-J. Pictet (1809-72), professors at the University of Geneva. the latter being an eminent paleontologist.

2 comments:

Clare said...

Thank you Jonathan - that is so interesting and such a great summary. I didn't know that languages and geology could be linked in this way - but it makes perfect sense the way you have it.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Clare. I, also, was intrigued by discovering this. I had a feeling something like it might exist after discovering the geological heritage of Saussure.