Memory, Social Networks, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis II

Putting Memetic to the Test: The Case of Historical Trends in English Phonotactics

Nikolaus Ritt


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Critics of Darwinian, meme-based approaches to cultural history have often pointed out that no empirical phenomena have so far been identified which memetic models can explain better than classical theories, i.e. theories which view cultural history as driven by human agents. Taking this criticism seriously, this paper looks at a few long term trends in the history of English phonotactics, proposes a memetic account of them, and compares it to explanations that have been, or might be offered, on the basis of classical, speaker-based approaches. The paper tries to account for the phenomenon that during the last 1000 years English consonants and consonant clusters have been systematically reduced, deleted, vocalized or even completely lost from the phonemic inventory, while vowels have quite frequently been strengthened (i.e. lengthened and/or diphthongized). Basically, it proposes that this asymmetry results from selective pressures which regularities in the organization of English utterance rhythm have exerted on the memorized shapes of English word forms. It is argued that fixed word-stress and the tendency of utterance feet to be isochronous selected for phonemic elements which could be expressed with variable phonetic duration without being misidentified. In short, the development is seen as resulting from the interaction of linguistic competence constituents which are expressed and transmitted together. The role of speakers in the process is seen as limited to providing the stable physiological environment in which the transmission or replication of competence evolution takes place, the potential effects of intentional and context-specific human behavior on the observed trends in the evolution of English are assumed to sum over, or to cancel one another out. After a possible memetic explanation of the changes is given, the paper discusses whether more or less the same story could not also be told in terms that are presently more established in the discourse of the linguistic community – an opinion which is often voiced at linguistic conferences and which has also made it into printed reviews (e.g. Blevins 2006, Berg 2007 of memetic approaches to language change (such as Ritt 2004). In this paper it is argued that while classical, speaker-centered versions of the account may be possible, they necessarily fail to achieve the explanatory depth of memetic explanations if they do not explicitly account for the rationales which underlie human preferences in behavior, learning, and decision making. As soon as they cease to take them for granted, however, also classically hermeneutic theories of language change wind up deconstructing the very notion of speaker agency by which they are supposedly distinguished from memetic theories. The paper ends by concluding that long term changes in English phonotactics do represent an actual empirical case by which the explanatory value of memetic theory can be demonstrated, although it requires some awareness of the problems involved in assessing the quality of rivaling explanations in order to see this.

Nikolaus Ritt received his MA and PhD at Vienna University, where he now teaches English linguistics. He was foreign lecturer at Durham University, and guest professor at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest), and Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznam). He is the author of Quantity Adjustment: Vowel Lengthening and Shortening in Early Middle English (Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and co-editor of a number of books on English linguistics, e.g., Words: Structure, Meaning, Function (Mouton de Gruyter, 2000). His present research focuses on the cognitive and social mechanisms behind language variation and change, which he tries to explain in terms of generalized evolutionary theory.