The Dravidian Salesman
<<We seem to have different approaches to some problems, which is an
altogether healthy situation. You emphasise functional explanations. I do not
believe in maxims like "languages do not produce/tolerate purposeless
variety"; to my simple mind, they often do, and trivial redundancy is both
generated and tolerated in natural languages.>>
Just to be clear. "Languages do not produce/tolerate purposeless variety" is
NOT good functional analysis. It is some kind of extreme "optimization" idea.
Functionalism, as I'm using it, pivots on actual or intended effect. With
language, it assumes that when people speak (or listen) they often do so with
the expectation that something will happen because they spoke (or listened.)
The choice of words, tenses, voices, etc., generally reflect an intention to
have an effect on listeners. There may be a difference between the intended
and actual effect, and that's one thing that promotes learning.
Obviously, some humans do walk around speaking out loud without regard to the
effect of their speaking has on others. And babies babble. And then there
are times we say something without a clear idea of what we want the results
to be, or say words without knowing what they mean. But, in general, you or
I don't say things out loud without expecting that those things will have
some internal or external effect on others. And that is obviously a very
important way speech "functions." Languages generally don't borrow words
that have no "meaning" at all.
"Prestige" obviously would be classified as one intended or actual effect of
speaking. (Not like the effect of saying "Please close the door." Or "how
much does this cost?". Or "I'll kill you." Or "What's for dinner?" But an
effect none the less.) There are obviously however many, many possible
intended or actual effects. (Someone who teaches you to fly a plane, e.g., is
speaking with the intention of having very specific effects.) And many of
these effects would seem to be more important in our mutual or individual
everyday lives than prestige (at least for most people). Language as the
exchange of hard information is essential to how we get food, shelter and a
hundred thousand other human activities.
It should also be mentioned that the use of redundant synonyms ought to be
considered functional as well, if for no other reason than redundancy clearly
benefits the stability of systems over time.
One of the best models of functional analysis is the construct of biological
evolution, but without the element of intentionality. Every biological
mutation is "purposeless" - mutations are random. But nevertheless most
mutations have some actual effect on an organism's ability to survive. They
also may corner that animal if the outside world changes. An animal-type
that has mutated into a highly successful citrus-fruit eater may be in
trouble if the climate changes and citrus trees disappear. The ability to
"fall back" to another way of making a living promotes survival.
In the same way, there may be a functional communicative value at some point
in "falling back" on another way of "saying the same thing." (E.g., "Let me
put it another way...")
What was the difference in effect if I were a ME speakers who said <erne>
instead of <eagle> or vice versa? A lot would depend on the context in which
I said either word. How would it come up in the marketplace or during a
lunch break? Seeing an eagle should not have been a common occurence for
most folk, even country folk. (Like other solitary predators, most eagles
tend to live at very low population densities in limited, mostly non-agrarian
Here's a guess at what an important function for the <eagle> word might have
been and possibly what made it both common and expanded its meaning to
Money. OED: <eagle> = "a coin bearing the image of the bird; spec. a coin
of base metal current in England at the time of Edward I..." It may be that
most ME English speakers were most interested in this type of "eagle." And
that it was their main contact in any way with the bird. On that basis, a
speaker might have come to be more confident of being "understood" in using
the eagle word than in what may have been the rarer <erne> no matter what the
Perhaps the money word is a better explanation than that the usage of <eagle>
first expanded because ME speakers felt that there was a positive effect on
their social standing in using an isolated continental word for a bird that
should have rarely come up in regular conversation anyway.
Piotr also wrote:
<<If only one survives, greater sociolinguistic prestige may often prove to
be the crucial selective factor.>>
Often? Prove? How would you support that?
Piotr also wrote:
<<For example, it's quite common for numerals (words with a fairly fixed
meaning) to diffuse between unrelated or distantly related languages even if
there is no "necessity" involved. Many of the Dravidian languages in India
have borrowed the numerals '4'-'10' (as well as the decads and '100') from
Indo-Aryan, despite the fact that Proto-Dravidian lacked nothing in that
Calling this prestige seems way off the mark. And necessity doesn't have to
have anything to do with it. This is trade and commerce. In a multilingual
market, the best salesmen know your money and your order in your language.
The intended AND actual effect of borrowing here would very probably be to
avoid confusion in dealing, get a competitive advantage and to close the
deal. If Dravidians were selling raw materials to I-A's, it would just be
effective business to at least partially communicate with your customer in
his language. And those kinds of partial borrowings would (and do today)
back up through the distribution pipeline. It's the buyer who writes the
specs, EVEN if the buyer is a unprestigious slob who just happens to have
money to spend.
On the other hand, I don't see many Dravidians trying to impress their
friends and neighbors by counting from four to ten in Indo-Aryan.