Natural causes of language

Natural causes of language by Nick Enfield discusses theories behind cultural transmission of language.  From the blurb:

What causes a language to be the way it is? Some features are universal, some are inherited, others are borrowed, and yet others are internally innovated. But no matter where a bit of language is from, it will only exist if it has been diffused and kept in circulation through social interaction in the history of a community. This book makes the case that a proper understanding of the ontology of language systems has to be grounded in the causal mechanisms by which linguistic items are socially transmitted, in communicative contexts.

I like the argument that a particular ‘language’ (like English or Welsh) is not a real entity, but a “convenient fiction” – something I also argued in my thesis.

It’s a special book in two senses.  First, it comes from the new Language Sciences Press: an open access publisher where publishing costs nothing to the author and reading costs nothing to the reader.   Hopefully we’ll see this being used to good effect.

Secondly, it comes with a video introduction from the author!

2 thoughts on “Natural causes of language”

  1. YES, languages are convenient fictions. Think of them as turbulent fluids having multiple viscosities more or less arranged in layers. At the bottom we have a layer that is almost but not completely solid. It is fluid, but it moves very slowly. You might call it langue. At the top we have layer that his quite viscious, always in motion. You might call it parole. I don’t know how many layers there are in between, and I don’t think they’re cleanly separated.

  2. Cause and effect are indeed basic concepts in cognition, just as purpose and achievement. In dealing with the world in Physics terms the two models are equivalent. Check out the path of a bouncing ball or the path of light beams through transparent materials, like liquids. To attribute cause to language per se, however seems problematic to me for the same reason. You just as well could attribute an objective to language, something we are inclined to accept as sensible communication usually has an aim.
    Nevertheless, that is not the real problem for me. Language is a product of animal societies, with humans only one of them. Animals as living organisms work in a different matter from the objects of Physics as they are composed of regulatory circuits, which means feedback and adaptation or control. That is a different ball game from causality on the fly.
    The basic problem with language to me it seems that its metaphysical status is not recognized. It is not part of the physical world, it only references it. So what it shows is the metaphysical concepts that we have about the world, in addition to a subset of language used to identify and describe the physical world. Language as it is describe in the triangle of Reference is between reality and the mind, of which we do not know enough, because of its fantastic speed of processing. That is one reason why causality is damn hard to pinpoint.
    In a language, however, causality is reduced to transitivity. Transitivity is the feature that connects words together to create a clause. It is not only verbs that are transitive or intransitive. the mere fact that a subject calls for a predicate itself shows transitivity, or the need to go from on, a label, title or heading (subject) to two, a message that must have a specified verbal part in it to make sense. And if you like, then this is neither cause, nor is a transition or spatial transfer, but a simple genesis that may be seen either as creation or development, subject to the width of your time frame.
    Verbal human language is just one version of the bee dance, yet it is full of other scrap which is bets described as metaphysics.

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