Evolving words: Darwin on Müller on Schleicher

“A struggle for life is constantly going on among quotations in academic writings. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.” Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it’s a variation on a bon mot attributed to Charles Darwin that you may have seen in any of a range of recent papers on how language evolves.

We’ve seen the remarkable role of acacia trees in language evolution (Geraint 2011); now behold a case of parallel evolution towards a mutant quotation. Terence Deacon in PNAS (2010); Morten Christiansen & Nick Chater in BBS (2008); Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland in Evolution (2004) — they all quote the following words from Darwin 1871/1874:1

A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.

Except that if you look up the original, you’ll find that these words aren’t by Darwin, but by Max Müller.

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  1. The earliest work in which I found a version like this is Morten Christiansen’s 1994 Edinburgh PhD thesis. Very likely, that’s where it all started. []

Diversity Linguistics Comment

Diversity linguistics is the scientific study of human language in its full diversity, going beyond the study of major official languages, focusing in depth on particular lesser known languages or in breadth on comparison, whether structural-typological or historical.

Diversity linguistics has existed since the 18th century in a variety of ways, but until recently it has not been conceptualized as a coherent field of study with a community of scholars that are in constant dialogue with each other. In-depth study of small languages was done mostly by missionaries until a few decades ago; historical-comparative linguistics was seen as a way to supplement the historical study of the major languages (and the corresponding nations); and structural-typological comparison was long confined to a few linguists with philosophical interests.

This has been changing fast over the last few decades. With Joseph Greenberg’s empirical approach to universals and Noam Chomsky’s speculations about universal grammar, interest in general properties of human language structures has increased dramatically since the 1960s. The descriptive linguistics of underdescribed languages has realized that it can profit enormously from typological insights, so that the dependence becomes mutually – descriptivists and comparativists need each other’s works and insights. More and more descriptivists have ventured into typology, while armchair typologists have felt the need to go out and describe languages. And historical-comparative linguistics has changed quite radically, too: Historical linguists working on non-Indo-European languages are increasingly connected with each other across the language families, they are of course well-connected with fieldworkers (often fieldworkers become historical linguists or vice versa), and with the increasing importance of areal typology, they have become more and more interested in typology as well.

Thus, it is possible to speak of a field of “diversity linguistics”, even though this term is not widely used (yet). By adopting this term, linguists working within this field would signal that they feel responsible for, and competent in, a larger domain of study than is signaled by narrower terms like”typology”, “descriptive linguistics” or “historical linguistics”. Moreover, “diversity linguistics” sounds cool – contrast that with “descriptive linguistics”, which had a positive ring in the 1950s (cf. Gleason 1955) but is increasingly being replaced by “documentary linguistics” anyway. “Historical linguistics” sounds as if the practitioners spend most of their time in archives instead of using software from bioinformatics to unravel the human past. And “typology” is a term that no nonlinguist even begins to understand (which is why I prefer to replace it by “comparative linguistics”, or “structural-comparative linguistics” if a contrast with “historical-comparative linguistics” needs to be made).