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The Telos of Linguistic Change

The antepenultimate post below invokes the foundational semeiotic concepts of the greatest intellect the Americas have ever produced, the philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), but leaves some of his most pertinent formulations uncited. The following is meant to remedy this lacuna.

For instance, take the following passage from his Collected Papers (cited by volume and paragraph number):

“[U]nderlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits….  In so far as evolution follows a law, the law or habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from laws are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise…, so that the general result may be described as ‘organized heterogeneity,’ or, better, rationalized variety” (6.101; emphasis added).

The idea of a “rationalized variety” is supported by Peirce’s comments about the foundational role of diagrams: “A concept is the living influence upon us of a diagram, or icon, with whose several parts are connected in thought an equal number of feelings and ideas. The law of mind is that feelings and ideas attach themselves in thought so as to form systems” (7.467; emphasis added).

Given enough time to work itself out, even an apparently arbitrary system (such as an orthography) will tend toward diagrammatization. Its drift is, in other words, determined by a movement with an explicit telos. As the linguist Edward Sapir famously put it: “Language moves down time in a current of its own making. It has a drift…. The linguistic drift has direction. In other words, only those individual variations embody it or carry it which move in a certain direction, just as only certain wave movements in the bay outline the tide.”


One Response to “The Telos of Linguistic Change”

  • Savely Senderovich says:

    Michael Shapiro’s comments on contemporary English are riveting: a rare combination of sharp characterizations of the language’s life with theoretical precision.

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