When I began planning this blog I did not expect to be reporting on a revolution, at least not right off the bat. But a revolution is underway and it turns out that this blog reports on its crossroads, the place where attention meets society. The origins of speech are critical to that junction.
Yesterday the New York Times began a series about families and children with severe mental problems.The deeply mysterious psychological disorders like autism, Williams Syndrome, Asperger Syndrome, and the other conditions that show themselves during early development reveal how little we still understand about bhe basics of being human. These disorders separate their members from the rest of society in unproductive ways, and yet we still have a terrible time putting our finger on what has gone wrong.
Yesterday’s post (here) argued that we need some explanation for the way speech (in at least its surface appearance) changes over time and yet never degenerates into meaningless babble. Something must be constraining its changes the way natural selection constrains biological changes, but it cannot literally be natural selection because the process is too rapid for random processes to work.
Linguistic evolution is commonly spoken of as a form of cultural evolution, but we define culture so broadly that the notion of its evolution means merely historical rather than biological change. Evolution implies something richer. It is change that preserves something. Biological evolution preserves fitness through adaptation; linguistic evolution preserves meaning, also by adapting to changing circumstances. The three processes I described in natural selection have similar processes in the history of language:
This blog has begun well, by my humble standards, receiving visitors throughout the day and I see there has been a steady number of subscribers, although the first few mailings have been a day late with the post. (I’m trying to fix that.) There is a bit of a backlog of news right now as I try to bring readers up to date on what has been happening in this broad field, so I have been citing already-published articles rather than just-published ones. I expect that to change as we move along. Sometimes, of course, the news is a little weird because the news sources have their agendas, which may not match the readers’ interests. In particular there is one central topic of language studies that scholars work hard to avoid mentioning.
Which metaphor for the obvious do you prefer: the elephant in the room or the crazy aunt in the basement? In either case, we all know that speech is only useful because utterances mean something, yet meaning is the reality that dare not speak its name, the elephant everyone prefers not to mention.