On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language

By Rudi Keller | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Historical reconstruction

2.1

THE ORIGIN OF LANGUAGE: A STORY AND ITS INTERPRETATION

The Société de Linguistique de Paris, founded in 1865, made short shrift of a problem that had nagged the European philosophy of language for more than a hundred years by laying down in Article II of its statutes that no papers which dealt with the origin of language would be accepted. 1

They had had enough of all the wild speculation à la Condillac, Süβmilch, Herder, and the rest. To share the prestige of the natural sciences, the linguists had to subscribe to the doctrine of empiricism. 'We have to investigate what is', said the president of the Philological Society of London, Alexander J. Ellis, in a programmatic speech in 1873. 2

In the meantime, another century has gone by, and we can approach the problem of the so-called origin of language with a more open mind.

I would like to tell a story, the tale of an ape-man. The model for this story is Strecker's story about the small-world people. 3 What we are dealing with here is really something like a fairy tale, not the reconstruction of a past reality. The value of such a procedure will concern us later.

Once upon a time there was a group of ape-men. Ape-men are beings who have just passed beyond the stage of apehood, but who have not yet reached the stage where one could simply say they are human beings, because ape-men do not have a language. However, these ape-men had at their disposal, just like their closest relatives the man-apes, a rich repertoire of sound-expressions. The cholerics amongst them bickered and growled when they were angry; the

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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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