Mises on ‘laws’ in linguistics

Ludwig von Mises, the philosopher, historian, and economist, apparently had some suspicions regarding the status of ‘laws’ in linguistics when he first encountered them, as evidenced by some of his notes on research ideas. In particular, after attending a seminar where it was discussed, Mises questioned the status of Grimm’s Law as a veritable law in the same sense that the laws of physics and economics are laws. Without a background in linguistics, Mises nevertheless understood immediately that sound changes, being fundamentally a complex social phenomena, could not be exceptionless in the same way that the laws of physics are. Yet this was the very claim of the Neogrammarians, who in putting forth the Neogrammarian Hypothesis, stated that all sound change is regular, and affects all the words in which its environment is met, without exception. The problem with this is that sound change often happens by a process of diffusion, and the axis of that diffusion may be lexical, social, geographic, or all three at once. That is, a sound change may begin in just one area of the lexical – say, nouns, or words of a certain semantic category – and then spread to other areas of the lexicon. Similarly, sound changes may begin in one geographical area, or in one socioeconomic group, and spread from there. This diffusion may also be interrupted or even reversed at any time.
The Neogrammarian Hypothesis seems appealing from the perspective of Indo-European linguistics because of the long written history of the languages involved, providing a continuous record of many sound changes which did in fact go all the way to completion – that is, sound changes which diffused through all parts of the lexicon, the entire geographic area in which the languages were spoken, and through the various socioeconomic groups that spoke it. With the advantage of hindsight and a long period of written documentation, many sound changes look entirely regular, exceptionless, and ‘law-like’. Even before Verner’s Law was known, which handles the major known exceptions to Grimm’s Law, the Neogrammarians were content to declare Grimm’s Law a scientific law, assuming that the exceptions were motivated in some way not yet understood. In a certain sense they were right – presumably there is always an explanation for the exceptions to sound change, whether that explanation be borrowing, diffusion, or other sound changes. To say otherwise would be to throw the Principle of Sufficient Reason out the window. But this is not really the sense in which the Neogrammarians meant that sound changes are exceptionless. As stated above, they believed that sound change happens in toto, all at once, to the language as a whole. Their theory was thus not compatible with processes like lexical diffusion.
The Neogrammarian Hypothesis also would have been appealing to the scientific positivists of the time, who would have been seeking to make linguistics a science proper by mimicking the methods and tools of the physical sciences, most especially the formalization and algorithmization of theory. A process like Grimm’s Law, which when coupled with Verner’s Law appears largely exceptionless, was the perfect candidate for such formalizations, and allowed positivist-leaning linguists of the day to formulate mathematical-like rules which to their minds put linguistics at the same level of sophistication as the other sciences.
The true range of processes contributing to sound change, however, is not nearly so neat. Factors like socioeconomic status and geographic location are not so easily captured via algorithm, and so it is no surprise that the positivist-leaning Neogrammarians did not account or show much awareness of these variables. Mises, who long argued against positivist attempts to mathematize and formalize the social sciences, would have immediately recognized Grimm’s Law as another such attempt to do the same in linguistics. Social phenomena like language, and in particular sound change, are not subject to exceptionless, law-like rules, but rather a variety of competing processes at nearly every level of language from cognition to phonology to social action.
I think Mises was quite astute in questioning the status of ‘laws’ in linguistics, and for the same reason would have been a strong opponent of generative approaches to linguistics today. The reasons why the Neogrammarian Hypothesis failed to stand the test of time are the same reasons why generative linguistics is floundering today.

The Second Most Spoken Languages Around the World

from Linguist List:


Date: 05-Jun-2015 

From: Matt Zajechowski <mattdigitalthirdcoast.net>

Subject: Interactive Map: The Second Most Spoken Languages Around the World

Typically, the official language of any country is also the most spoken language in that country. But what can the second-most spoken language tell you about that country? In many cases, knowing the second-most spoken language can tell you about that country’s ethnic heritage, their educated class, the language that they do business in, and how global that country is.

For example, in the United States, Spanish is the second-most spoken language throughout the country. However, in several states (Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont), French is the most commonly spoken second language. And, to further reflect the United States’ reputation as a melting pot, more than 60 million Americans speak a language at home other than English; of these, over 58% self-reported to the U.S. Census Bureau that they spoke English “very well.”

In South America, people might be surprised to learn that the second most common language in Brazil is German. There are estimated to be 3 million German speakers in Brazil, and people speak both traditional German and Brazilian dialects of German. Another interesting revelation is that Italian is the second most spoken language in Argentina. As much as 97% of Argentina’s population identifying as “white” identify as ethnically Italian, and there are reported to be around 600,000 Italian speakers in Argentina.

In Europe, where people are often fluent in more than one language, the second-most spoken language varies greatly among countries. Catalan, German, Gaelic, South Asian, Finnish, and even regional or indigenous dialects are among the several different second-most spoken languages in Europe. In Africa, the second-most spoken languages are most commonly indigenous or tribal languages unique to that specific country. English and French are also common “lingua francas” throughout Africa. Finally, in Asia and Oceania, English is the second-most spoken language in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia.

To see a map of the second most spoken languages around the world, check out this interactive map from Olivet Nazarene University:

Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation

Tribe works to keep Umatilla language alive

By NATALIE WHEELER, The East Oregonian Published:  Sep 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM PST

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Tribal members living in the Pendleton Round-Up’s teepee village stopped, listened and peeked their heads west when Carina Vasquez-Minthorn sang the national anthem at last week’s Happy Canyon Night Show.

Vasquez-Minthorn, 20, a Happy Canyon princess, sang in the Umatilla language for the first time at the show. Some cried, others clapped and cheered.

“She hadn’t told me she was going to sing in Umatilla,” Vasquez-Minthorn’s grandmother Marjorie Waheneka said. “I was telling everyone, ‘That’s Carina, that’s Carina!'”

Like many native languages, the Nez Perce language and Sahaptin language group — including Umatilla and Walla Walla — are no longer the mother tongues of most tribal members. Government boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries forbid tribal members from speaking their native language, and for many years tribal members focused less on their own verse and more on becoming masters of English.

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[From the ILAT listserv]

Ernie Dingo traces the importance of languages to Indigenous culture

Language is an integral part of our culture.

But did you know that Aboriginal languages are shaped by ancestral connections to the land, stars, water, sea and the air we breathe?

NITV’s six-part series Talking Language with Ernie Dingo explores the complex and delicate balance between language, stories and relationship to country.

“I want to hear the Earth in the words, in the songs, in the voices of the past, the present and the future [than greetings in Aboriginal language].”

There are around 250 Aboriginal languages with 600 dialects spoken in Australia.

But it’s thought only thirty of those languages are spoken each day, while over one hundred are critically endangered.

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[From the ILAT listserv]


Native American Language Could Soon Disappear

Following up on my previous post, here’s another article about the Maidu language community. It was pointed out on the Indigenous Languages & Technology listserv, however, that these articles may not be an accurate representation of actual community attitudes. Jim Bauman says:

“The BBC article seems to be generalizing that the Maidu communities in California are willingly letting their language slip away. Whatever may be the case in Taylorsville, the claim definitely does not carry over to other communities. Case in point, the Susanville Indian Rancheria has an ongoing ANA grant for a Maidu language revitalization program. The Weye-ebis Program meaning “Keep Talking” (http://www.ourlanguage.org/resource/weye-ebis-mountain-maidu-language-revitalization) is working toward preservation and documentation goals with an important objective being the creation of a sustaining language training program. Other efforts are also underway in other areas of the Maidu ancestral territory.”

He also adds, I think insightfully:

“It is always the case that individuals with knowledge of their ancestral language can choose to not share that knowledge, but theirs is an individual decision that doesn’t characterize the will or intent of all tribal members.”