A Conversation for Language and Life - a Perspective on Species

No natural selection?

Post 1

Martin Harper

I'd dispute that. To be sure, English retains many illogical spellings and irregular verbs and weird pronounciations and suchlike from its past. And? All this shows is that logicality is not the primary selection means for languages. Since language is about communication rather than higher math, this should not surprise.

Examples of selection in language include social trends. Certain words or phrases can become associated socially with different characteristics. For example, longer words are associated with education, certain four letter words are associated with poor breeding, other words are associated with discrimination of various kinds. Some words are more international than others. And so on. The popularity of a word will vary depending on how desirable those characteristics are.

Case in point: the phrase 'double hard b*****d' was popularised on the TV program 'Game On'. People may use the phrase to associate themselves with that program, increasing its circulation. When 'Game On' stopped, use of the phrase declined again, as it was now associated with the past. A more current example would be 'wazzup', as used on Budweiser adverts.

Another important selection point is usefulness. Words that aren't practically useful will fall out of fashion very quickly. When the horse-drawn carriage was replaced by the infernal combustion engine, words like 'farrier' became much less widespread, and presumably there are other words that are now completely lost.

The final selection point is the same one that causes speciation is biological evolution: standardisation. This drive is much stronger in language than it is in biology, which is partly why there are fewer distinct languages than there are distinct species. This comes around because language is about communication, and if two people wish to communicate, they must use a common language.

A creature may be far advanced from its peers, but if it cannot breed with them, it will not pass on its genes. So too, a person's language may be far advanced from hir peers, but if sie cannot communicate with them, it will not be passed on.


No natural selection?

Post 2


I have a minor issue with your post Martin. You say:
"A creature may be far advanced from its peers"
There is an argument that the shark is more advanced than the human. Why? Because it's form has existed for longer. that's incorrect too. All species in existence today are equally advanced. Some branches on the evolutionary tree have fewer off-shoots, but all species according to the theory began in the same place, so we've all come just as far.
Can species adapt and remain the same species? Of course, that depends on our definition of species.

Still, if you want to call humans superior than it becomes a different arguement.

smiley - cheers

No natural selection?

Post 3


Thanks for commenting Martin smiley - ok

I understand what you're getting at and I somewhat agree with you. I was referring to natural selection in a strict biological sense, that fitness and fitness alone drive natural selection. The most efficient or effective way of communicating is not the way it happens. If natural selection were involved then all of the illogical, cultural and traditional elements of languages would be cut away for pure efficiency.


Perhaps natural selection *is* indeed there as you say, but is less powerful because there is less competition between or in languages than in species. Natural selection in language would not scythe away all illogical elements, just trim them.

Anyway, it's an interesting point you raise. smiley - ok.

Stesmiley - earth

No natural selection?

Post 4

Noggin the Nog

Who says that all the 'illogical' aspects of language are inefficient? Inefficient for what? On the one hand traditional usages help to maintain the continuity of culture; on the other, new usages, slang, jargon etc. are often 'illogical'. Language can be used to restrict communication as well as extend it, like Cockney rhyming slang, thieves cant, or technical jargon. The logic of language extends beyond the efficiency of communication. In much the same way the logic of some biological features is not geared to the survival of the individual eg the peacock's tail, but to the survival of its genes.


No natural selection?

Post 5

Sea Change

English is a predator language. It is a vicious consumer and co-opter, whose multitude of questing pseudopods engulf thousands of quietly grazing, unwary memes. (Underneath it's Germanic cell wall are the Norman mitochondria.)

'The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that it is about as pure as a cribhouse wh***. English has been known to stalk other languages, pursue them down dark alleyways, hit them over the head, and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary'

-an incompletely remembered quote from John Norman

No natural selection?

Post 6

Martin Harper

> "All species in existence today are equally advanced."

That can be argued. What can't be argued is that all *individuals* are equally advanced: that's one level of relativism too far.

If a human suddenly got (say) precognition, and was otherwise normal, sie would be more advanced than the average human. If that precognition caused hir to be labelled as a freak and stopped hir pulling, then we'd have a case where a creature is far advanced, but unable to breed. That's the biological version of 'forces of conservatism', if you like.

Actually, having argued that languages are more conservative than biology, I wonder. We differ in genes within species by a few hundreds of a percent (IIRC) - is the variation in English between different speakers/writers more or less than that?


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