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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Building a New Brain from Old Parts | Main | The Richness of the Stimulus »



Elites are important as well, though. If only because elites are also the result of a community's interaction, not something alien to the community. Therefore, the elite's language will be more authoritative not just because of an arfificial imposition, but because such authority makes sense in the dynamics of the community, and therefore of the speech community.


The Norman Conquest complicates things for that argument because the elite were completely alien and although they considered their language to be authoritative it never spread lower down the social hierarchy. In fact the opposite happened: the elite eventually ended up speaking English.

Elites do try to influence language for reasons of power, but how (and whether) that works is not very well understood. My work on the social and political history of early-modern England suggests that reality often failed to live up to how the elite said things ought to be.
BLOGGER: The Normans are a particularly interesting case because they took over part of France and learned French, took over England and learned English, took over part of southern Italy and learned Italian. The western Roman empire does seem to have picked up Latin, as shown by the existence of French, Spanish, and the other Romance languages. In Tibet the elites and the commoners ended up speaking different languages.

Jesús Sanchis

Dear Blogger,

I am the commenter whose sentences you quoted in your post. I am afraid you quite misunderstood what I meant by those words. It is obvious that the language spoken in a society is the result of the interaction between the speakers, among other factors, and not something just imposed from above. But the ruling elites do have a role in this, through education, mass media, and all possible expressions of power. This becomes clear in highly-stratified societies, like the ones we live in. In these societies, people usually look down on things like pidgins, because they look "impure", but this purity exists because some people have decided what is pure and what is not. The experiment that you mention, carried out by that group of Italian researchers, sounds interesting, and it shows interaction mechanisms that may be similar to those taking place in human societies. But as I said, the complexity of our modern societies makes a difference if we compare them, for example, to pre-Neolithic societies. It is absurd to ignore this fact.

You say in your post:

"the commenter had it wrong. Language is the result of a community, not an “elite or domineering group telling the others how or what” to say".

I agree with what you say about language, but I still don't understand what is wrong about what I said. And what I said was, sorry to repeat it, that the role of the ruling elites is relevant, and must be taken into account, especially when we consider complex, highly-stratified societies. What's wrong with that, Mr Bolles?
BLOGGER: First, let me say that the commenter has been a regular contributor to comments on this blog and I much appreciate it. He runs a rival blog on the origns of language ( which visitors to Babel's Dawn should check out.

As to this post, I was disagreeing with what I took to be the proposition that today's speech results from an "elite or domineering group from the telling the others how or what 'language' they had to speak ... [while in prehistoric times] the mixture of language was definitely a common phenomenon and the most important factor in language evolution." If that proposition is compatible with saying that languages are the result of "negotiations" between members of the community, good and I'm sorry I misunderstood you.

Speaking of misunderstanding, I can't help feeling that some of this confusion comes from the cross-national aspect of this blog. "Elite" is such a loaded word in American politics and strongly resisted here. Meanwhile, Spain has had a recent history under Franco of trying to outlaw languages. I was quite struck by the language situation in Barcelona when I visited there. The Catalan language has made a strong comeback.

Jesús Sanchis

I think you're right. When I talked about the role of elites in modern societies I had in mind situations in which there's more than one language, like in Spain or many other European countries. But not only that. Even in monolingual communities, the influence of the elite tends to determine what version of the language is more acceptable in certain situations.

On the other hand, the term 'language' is quite confusing. It is used with a variety of meanings. For example, as a label to refer to a standardized form of language, like "English" or "Spanish", and also to refer to what people actually speak. In a more scientific context, it is clear that it would be avisable to use specific words to refer to these varying concepts. However, in everyday speech and in a multidisciplinary framework, which seeks to ease the path for dialogue among the sciences, one tends to think that the ambiguity of words like "language" is not an insourmountable problem. Anyway, no matter what terminology we use (dialect, speech, language, sociolect) we usually find social or ideological elements associated to it, which makes the use of these words even more complicated. It is clear that talking about language from a social perspective is not an easy task


This computer simulation appears to replicate Susan Goldin-Meadow's work in the field. Home signers invent gestures to represent their ideas, but without any language model their creations are not uniform, as clearly exemplified by word order. Some children consistently produce their signs in the order verb-object, others will use the OV order. This forms a barrier to communication that, when several children interact, resolves itself in exactly the manner described. Presumably they converge on color terms by the same process, and any other parameter-setting their growing language requires.
BLOGGER: I am a big fan of Goldin-Meadow and a skeptic about the utility of most of the computer simulations I read; however, in this case the simulation illustrates the point I wished to make: words can spread through a community without there being any possibility of a role for "elites."


This brings to mind a controversy re 'asymmetrical' pidgins, that form between the superstrate, spoken by those in power, and the other less prestigious languages. Most models of creole genesis assume asymmetry, with some even insisting that a symmetrical pidgin is impossible. In Mulhausler's model of Abrupt Creolization however, a symmetrical pidgin evolves amongst the substrates. The Nicaraguan case proves him right since it is clear that the adstrate homesigns created the early pidgin LSN, before it evolved into a full language.

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