Posted: Apr 15, 2012 1:13 pm
by Zwaarddijk
katja z wrote:
Zwaarddijk wrote:
One thing may be worth noting, though: these don't only happen as historical processes, but any one of them also occurs randomly in speech all the time. When some specific change starts relatively systematically happening in some context, the language is likely to change along that line.

I think the analogy with biological evolution is a useful one. Think of language as of a population. It isn't uniform - there is a certain degree of variation of speech produced by different groups of speakers, different speakers and even by the same speaker at different points and in different situations. Some mutations get fixed in the population, by selection or by drift. Some only get fixed in part of the population, and so language varieties diverge. The historical process is thus grounded in variation that exists at any point in time.

Re epenthesis, I'm not sure the English a/an is such a good example; if I remember correctly, it comes from a weak form of the numeral one, where the n has disappeared except when immediately followed by a vowel. I suppose you could argue that synchronically, it functions the way you've described. Still, if we're talking language change, then this is a different case than, say, the development of Fr. trembler from Lat. tremulare.

Good points there. I think your post may be a sufficient note regarding analogy to evolution, though. Analogies to evolution do have some benefits: pretty much everyone here has an ok understanding of evolution, and it's an easy way of thinking about things once you have that down. Analogies to evolution likewise have some problems: there's quite a few misunderstandings about evolution around as well, and it's easy to get the wrong idea about, say, what the evolutionary pressures are that operate on language, etc.

Even though biologists have abandoned the idea of evolution as an ascension towards higher forms, this idea still is something we easily are mislead into thinking about when evolution is brought in as an analogy, and that's a thing I want to avoid.

What I currently strive to do, really, is just establish the basic concepts - once I've gotten through these basic ideas, I suspect a nice short ~case study (English) would be a good idea.

You are probably right about a|an. I'll remove that, intrusive r is a sufficient well-known example that even a fully monolingual English reader is likely to have run into it. I prefer at least including English examples of as much as possible, and preferrably examples that are recognized as standard language, to showcase that things people get ridiculed for (nucular, etc) are even part of standard English (ask), and that even the unchanged version (aks) can be source of ridicule. And that changes like these can even turn into regularly recurring things in morphology (leaf-leaves, wife-wives, ...)