Monday, December 19, 2011

Evolutionary vs. Historical Linguistics

The three-part series on David Crystal's Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 brought a question to mind. Perhaps you have a good answer.* Can we precisely define and distinguish evolutionary linguistics and historical linguistics?

Language evolves, certainly, a statement which probably means that language changes. So is the study of language change evolutionary linguistics? Normally that is considered historical linguistics. Historical linguistics can be either diachronic or synchronic (or synchronic linguistics can be just as logically considered to be descriptive linguistics in distinction from historical linguistics), meaning it studies 1) language change over time or 2) language characteristics at a certain point in time (thus descriptive).

So historical linguistics is the study of language change. In the appropriately (if boringly) titled book Historical Linguistics and Language Change, Roger Lass distinguishes explains the difference and interaction of linguistics with language change thus: "Language change happens 'in the (spatio-temporal) world'; historical linguistics is the craft we exercise on its apparent results" (xiv).

Evolutionary linguistics, then, is not so much about the how of language and language change as about the why. That is, why do we have language at all? Where did it come from? How did humans develop the language instinct? (That is supposed to be a loaded question with a loaded term at the end.) To call this branch of linguistics "scientific" is really rather pretentious and optimistic then. As W. Tecumseh Fitch** says, "Language does not fossilize, and we lack time machines, so all of our data are indirect, and often several steps removed from the direct, conclusive evidence we might desire" (The Evolution of Language 15). We can make our best guesses, but trying to find out the origin of language in a scientific sense, searching for whether the very nature and structure of language has actually evolved, is probably not going to yield as much as could be hoped.

So evolutionary linguistics seems really to be about the history of language, in a primordial sense. Historical linguistics is about the evolution of language (or the history of the evolution of language). Historical linguistics is truly scientific, while evolutionary would appear to be much more speculative and hypothetical.

*And perhaps it really is not a difficult question, though on the surface it is tricky. For example, Wikipedia (which after all is the first source we all go to when we know nothing about a topic) defines historical and evolutionary linguistics in very similar terms. "Historical linguistics (also called diachronic linguistics) is the study of language change," while "evolutionary linguistics is the scientific study of the origins and development of language."
**A very cool name.

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