Commentary in:Biological Evolution: More than a metaphor for grammar change
Edited by Maria Rita Manzini
[Evolutionary Linguistic Theory 3:1] 2021
► pp. 93–108
On conceptualizing grammatical change in a Darwinian framework
A reply to Hubert Haider
Approaching language change within a Darwinian framework constitutes a long-standing tradition within the literature of diachronic linguistics. However, many publications remain vague, omitting conceptual details or missing necessary terminology. For example, phylogenetic trees of language families are regularly compared to biological speciation, but definitions on mechanisms of inheritance, i.e. how linguistic information is transferred between individuals and cohorts, or on the linguistic correlates to genotype and phenotype are often missing or lacking. In light of this, Haider’s attempts to develop this approach into a theoretically more precise position, closely mirroring principles of Darwinian natural selection in the dimension of diachronic grammatical change, but contrasting this with non-Darwinian lexical change. He draws a comparison to viral replication, essentially positing that grammar variants act as mental viruses, competing for replication in new hosts, i.e. children during critical periods of language acquisition. Haider proposes that in light of this competition for replication, the unconscious fixation of an individual’s grammar leads to diachronic grammatical change largely mirroring Darwinian natural selection. Despite the intuitive appeal this mode of reasoning may feature, the following response paper identifies and discusses a suit of shortcomings to this conceptualization. Some problems arise from underspecified theoretical notions, others due to the incomplete or inaccurate adoption of biological principles, and yet more through a partial incompatibility with empirical data. These criticisms do not amount to a dismissal of the Darwinian framework Haider is following, but to a rejection of Haider’s current position. Albeit it remains unclear if a truly Darwinian approach to language change can be reached, suggestions on how Haider’s theoretical notions could be further developed are made and pertinent efforts may ultimately lead to a productive theory.
Keywords: evolutionary theory, universal Darwinism, grammatical change, diachronic change, mental lexicon
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