Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of the evolution of language

The language of evolution. Photo by CharlesFred.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, guest contributor James Winters describes the considerable inter-relationships between evolutionary biology and the study of human language.

Darwin recognised, along with several other linguists of the period such as August Schleicher and Mikołaj Kruszewski, that language falls under the remit of evolutionary principles. Since then, there has been a renewed and growing interest in evolutionary (Croft, 2000) and ecological (Mufwene, 2000) theories of language change, with biological, cultural and linguistic forms of evolution being captured by the more general rubric of Complex Adaptive Systems. … it is the capacity to evolve and adapt that differentiates language and biology from these other systems, with the key concept being their ability to learn: past experiences filter through, or influence, future states of the system due to cumulative amplification dynamic (Deacon, 2010).

To find out more, go read the whole thing. ◼

More on Safire

Over at the Slog, Sean Nelson takes the time for more nuance than I did, but comes down in about the same place:

Though you could feel an aging man’s dismay (and sometimes disdain) coming through the pieces he wrote about tech talk and the newspeaky constructs of text and IM-based communication, his diligence in reporting and contextualizing them never faltered. He had a corny sense of humor and his puns were usually groaners. Still, it’s hard not to love the opening line of the intro to his 2004 On Language collection, The Right Word In the Right Place at the Right Time: “We will come to sodomy in a moment.”

Nelson also pulls this Safire quote:

“Knowing how things work,” he wrote, “is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.”

If that isn’t the essence of being a geek, I don’t know what is.

It also occurs to me that an excellent successor to Safire is found in Roy Blount, Jr., whose Alphabet Juice is less prescriptive but even more enthusiastic, and marinated in southern charm to boot.