Robustness, Evolvability, Degeneracy and stuff like that…

Much of the work I plan to do for this year involves integrating traditional and contemporary theories of language change within an evolutionary framework. In my previous post I introduced the concept of degeneracy, which, to briefly recap, refers to components that have a structure-to-function ratio of many-to-one, with a single degenerate structure being capable of performing distinct functions under different conditions (pluripotent). Whitcare (2010: 5) provides a case in point for biological systems: here, the adhesin gene family in A. Saccharomyces “ expresses proteins that typically play unique roles during development, yet can perform each other’s functions when expression levels are altered”.

But what about degeneracy in language? For a start, we already know from basic linguistic theory forms (i.e. structures) are paired with meanings (i.e. functions). More recent work has expanded upon this notion, especially in developing the concept of constructions (Goldberg, 2003): “direct form-meaning pairings that range from the very specific (words or idioms) to the more general (passive constructions, ditranstive construction), and from very small units (words with affixes, walked) to clause-level or even discourse-level units” (Beckner et al., 2009: 5). When applied to constructions, degeneracy fits squarely with work identifying language as a Complex Adaptive System (see here) and as a culturally transmitted replicator (see here and here), which offers a link between the generation of first order synchronic variation – in the form of innovation (e.g. newly introduced linguistic material in the form of sounds, words, grammatical constructions etc) – and the selection, propagation and fixation of linguistic variants within a speaker community.

For the following example, I’m going to look at a specific type of discourse-pragmatic feature, or construction, which has undergone renewed interest over the last thirty-years. Known as General Extenders (GEs) – utterance- or clause-final discourse particles, such as and stuff and or something – researchers are realising that, far from being superfluous linguistic baggage, these features “carry social meaning, perform indispensible functions in social interaction, and constitute essential elements of sentence grammar” (Pichler, 2010: 582). Of specific relevance, GEs, and discourse-pragmatic particles more generally, are multifunctional: that is, they are not confined to a single communicative domain, and can even come to serve multiple roles within the same communicative context or utterance.

It is proposed the concept of degeneracy will allow us to explain how multifunctional discourse markers emerge from variation existent at structural components of linguistic organisation, such as the phonological and morphosyntactic components. If anything, I hope the post might serve as some food for thought, as I’m still grappling with the applications of the theory (and whether there’s anything useful to say!).

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Language as a complex adaptive system

ResearchBlogging.orgA prominent idea in linguistics is that humans have an array of specialised organs geared towards the production, reception and comprehension of language. For some features, particularly the physical capacity to produce and receive multiple vocalizations, there is ample evidence for specialisation: a descended larynx (Lieberman, 2003), thoracic breathing (MacLarnon & Hewitt, 1999), and several distinct hearing organs (Hawks, in press). Given that these features are firmly in the domain of biology, it makes intuitive sense to apply the theory of natural selection to solve the problem: humans are specially adapted to the production and reception of multiple vocalizations.

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