“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.
- 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. [↩]