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THEORY: on the teleology of conlanging (was: RE: terminal dialect?)

From:Tom Wier <artabanos@...>
Date:Monday, March 29, 1999, 18:50
Joshua Shinavier wrote:

> My question is, do we know > anything specific about *when* it happens, i.e. whether one particular language, > given the arrangement of this, instabilities of that, and similarities to > the other, is *more likely* to undergo a certain change.
Well, this is actually a rather complicated question. In short, the answer is yes, with ifs. Basically, you have to look at the empirical evidence about individual cases, which happen more often, in what phonetic environments, and so on. Statistically speaking, there are quite a few phonetic changes that seem to happen very frequently in just about every language family around the world. Rhotacism (when [s] changes to [r]), for example, seems to occur a lot. Exactly why this is, I don't think any linguist really knows. You can describe the process (usually the [s] becomes voiced to [z], and then acquires retroflex qualities), but in terms of why that should occur, where other languages are perfectly happy *not* changing their phonetic form (here, rhotacizing), we (the scientific community) just don't know. So, probably at best, one can talk about statistical likelihood, but nothing is dead set. What we do know, however, is that once a change has occurred, the very strong tendency is for speakers (whether when children or not) to spread that rule across the entire spectrum of the phonology, in every word where the rule can apply, to the extent that one can call such changes laws (much as Newtonian physics provides a very very close approximation of reality). The conlanging motive
> behind this question is the possibility of altering a conlang so that, even if > it were actually used over a longish period of time by a large speakership, it > *will not change*, the possibility of a "terminal dialect" of the language, so > to speak.
Really, well, the problem, as alluded to above, is that some people find such statistical changes good (in that they will change where change is possible), while other speakers will find such changes unnecessary. So, you can't really do anything about that fact. Somewhere along the line, someone will find something about your phonology that they find hard or difficult, and will act accordingly. Probably the best thing you can do, then, is to design your phonology in such a way that you avoid as many of the possible statistical changes as possible. This will, however, be difficult, if not impossible, as there are statistically likely changes that have exactly opposite effects. Take, for example, syncope (the loss of medial vowel sounds). Syncope has given many English dialects the form /plis/ for <police>, because to those speakers, they found it easier to pronounce the consonant cluster at the beginning than to pronounce the only very slightly pronounced vowel in between the segments /p/ and /l/. On the other hand, many languages detest such consonant clusters (like, say, Hawaiian) and will try, as much as they can, to eliminate them. So, you see, you could make a language that will change more slowly, statistically speaking, but there is no way for you to engineer people's attitudes centuries from now, when there might be very different (internalized and unconscious) feelings about what the language should be like.
> I've been putting a lot of effort lately into guiding my conlang down > such a path, though I've never really been sure if such an expectation is even > reasonable; certainly you can deliberately use particularly "stable" sounds, > e.g. no "ps-"s, "pn-"s or whatnot, but is it possible to actually make the > entire language phonetically "stable"? I know Icelandic hasn't changed much for > hundreds and hundreds of years, but I wonder if this isn't due more to > linguistic conservatism and the small number of speakers than anything else...
I have a feeling that the rate of language change is closely tied to many other social changes occurring in any given society at any given time. Take the Great Vowel Shift, e.g., which occurred in the English language sometime around the time of Chaucer (ca 1350s). This was a time of great change in England itself, when trade with the continent (in things like textiles and raw goods like wool) was expanding at a fast rate, and thus the influx of foreign ideas and influences was increasing, paralleled by increasing urbanization and the innovation of new agricultural methods, which during the first part of the century brought about a burgeoning population, barely able to be fed by even these new methods. Of course, there also followed the Black Death, which then reduced the population of Europe by about a third, which even further revolutionized the social arrangements of society (empowering those serfs who had previously been strictly tied to the land and thus were better able to demand better living conditions from feudal lords and other such things). So, in general, you're talking about a time of truly great change. I don't think you can point to any one of these events as the source of why the language changed, but I would be willing to bet that the change itself is related in some way to the total impact of these changes, if only indirectly. It must be noted, however, that much of this (in this particular problem) is just speculation. Now, compare that to Iceland: relatively isolated from the rest of the world, to the point that it would be affected by social changes only many decades if not centuries after the original development of the change back in Europe. Icelandic has been able to remain pretty much the same because the population has always been relatively small (even today there're only about 300 thousand people there) and homogenous, thus leaving the innovators few and far between (as great innovators will always make up an extremely small minority of any population). Icelandic's "conservatism" doesn't have anything to do with what the people there think about language (as someone else noted recently, most people everywhere think their language is exactly the same as that of their youth, and of their forefathers, but this is selfevidently not the case); it has to do with the social forces that have affected the Icelanders since their first settlement in the late tenth century (ca. 950s, IIRC), which were themselves, not the people, tending to cause few changes in the language. So, getting the point: here too you see that you can't really foreordain what your language will be like many centuries or millennia hence, because all sorts of social events will intervene which you could never have foreseen. (You'd have to be a psychohistorian like Asimov's Hari Seldon to do that). ======================================================= Tom Wier <artabanos@...> ICQ#: 4315704 AIM: Deuterotom Website: <> "Cogito ergo sum, sed credo ergo ero." There's nothing particularly wrong with the proletariat. It's the hamburgers of the proletariat that I have a problem with. - Alfred Wallace ========================================================