On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language

By Rudi Keller | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Conclusion

6.1

LANGUAGE CHANGE AS AN EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS

In this chapter I would like to address the question of the extent to which language evolution represents a case of (socio-) cultural evolution and what the mechanisms underlying such an evolutionary process could be. In this context, 'language evolution' does not mean the development of human language or languages from animal proto-forms, but the historical evolution of language.

Language evolution in this sense necessarily implies stasis as well as change, as already pointed out in section 4.5. Historians of language have traditionally focused on the aspect of change, perhaps tacitly assuming that 'Where nothing changes, there is nothing to be explained'. To my mind, there are no objective grounds for holding this view. There is, for example, no less need to explain the fact that the West Germanic Satzklammer (the rule that in a main clause with complex predicates, the finite part of the predicate must be in second position and the other parts of the predicate at the end of the sentence) has maintained itself in German, Dutch, and Afrikaans, than to explain the fact that it has completely disappeared in English and is almost gone in Yiddish (with the exception of sentences with prepositional objects). 1 The motto, 'If we do nothing, everything remains the same', does not work in language. If we 'do nothing', language no longer exists. But everything does remain the same if we do not change our preferences of expression. If we maintain or change them, we make in both cases a (mostly unconscious) choice, and the one is no less mysterious than the other. 'It may be', writes biologist John Maynard Smith, 'that the search for the causes of constancy in human affairs may prove as fruitful as has the comparable study of

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On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Part I - Exposition of the Problem 1
  • Chapter 1 - The Problem of Language Change 3
  • Chapter 2 - Historical Reconstruction 19
  • Chapter 3 - In the Prison of Dichotomies 39
  • Part II - Solution and Discussion 59
  • Chapter 4 - The Working of the Invisible Hand 61
  • Chapter 5 - Discussion 108
  • Chapter 6 - Conclusion 141
  • Notes 160
  • References 170
  • Index 178
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