An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change

By Jeremy Smith | Go to book overview
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It will, it is hoped, have become clear from the preceding chapters that an argument about the nature of linguistic change in the history of English has been developed. Change, it has been argued, is the result of the complex interaction of extralinguistic and intralinguistic developments, and any resulting change itself interacts with further developments to produce yet more change. The conception is therefore a dynamic one, to use a term which has become popular with linguists (e.g. Bailey 1973, Sebba 1993). Although it is not possible, given the limitations of the evidence, to offer absolute proof as to the motivation of a particular linguistic innovation, or to predict the precise development of linguistic phenomena, nevertheless a rationally arguable historical explanation can be offered for the kinds of changes which languages can undergo, and a broad prediction can be made about the kinds of change which are liable to happen. This seems a reasonable goal for any historical enquiry which seeks to go beyond the simple chronicle.

Nevertheless, some historical linguists have worried over the years about the epistemological status of offering explanations for linguistic change; and this concern has led from time to time to such statements as the following:

there is no more reason for languages to change than there is for automobiles to add fins one year and remove them the next, for jackets to have three buttons one year and two the next.

(Postal 1968:283)

It will be clear from the argument that has been developed in the preceding chapters of this book that this belief in the inexplicable nature of linguistic change is not accepted here, although there would appear to be two possible reasons why one might be tempted to avoid the question 'why'. One is plain modesty; the other has a philosophical basis.

In his book on evolutionary biology, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), R. Dawkins describes a conversation he had with a 'distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist':


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