Natural causes of language

Natural causes of language

By N. J. Enfield
Book Description

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. A biased transmission model provides a basis for understanding why certain things and not others are likely to develop, spread, and stick in languages. Because bits of language are always parts of systems, we also need to show how it is that items of knowledge and behavior become structured wholes. The book argues that to achieve this, we need to see how causal processes apply in multiple frames or 'time scales' simultaneously, and we need to understand and address each and all of these frames in our work on language. This forces us to confront implications that are not always comfortable: for example, that "a language" is not a real thing but a convenient fiction, that language-internal and language-external processes have a lot in common, and that tree diagrams are poor conceptual tools for understanding the history of languages. By exploring avenues for clear solutions to these problems, this book suggests a conceptual framework for ultimately explaining, in causal terms, what languages are like and why they are like that.

Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Causal units
    • How we represent language change
    • Linguistic systems
    • Linguistic items
    • Thinking causally about language change
    • The problem with tree diagrams
  • Causal frames
    • Distinct frames and forces
    • MOPEDS: A basic-level set of causal frames
      • Microgenetic (action processing)
      • Ontogenetic (biography)
      • Phylogenetic (biological evolution)
      • Enchronic (social interactional)
      • Diachronic (social/cultural history)
      • Synchronic (representation of relations)
    • Interrelatedness of the frames
    • The case of Zipf's length-frequency rule
  • Transmission biases
    • Cultural epidemiology
    • Biased transmission
    • Some known biases
    • A scheme for grounding the biases
      • Exposure
      • Representation
      • Reproduction
      • Material
      • Networks
    • Causal anatomy of transmission
  • The item/system problem
    • A transmission criterion
    • Defining properties of systems
    • Relations between relations
    • More complex systems
    • Are cultural totalities illusory?
  • The micro/macro solution
    • The combinatoric nature of cultural items in general
    • Solving the item/system problem in language
    • Centripetal and systematizing forces
    • On normal transmission
      • Sociometric closure
      • Trade-off effects
      • Item-utterance fit, aka content-frame fit
    • A solution to the item/system problem?
  • Conclusion
    • Natural causes of language
    • Toward a framework
  • Bibliography
  • Index
    • Name index
    • Subject index
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