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Drift as the Triumph of the Iconic in Language Change (less vs. fewer)

Why don’t languages just stay the same? Why does each generation of speakers introduce changes even though a steady state would seem to have served the communicative goals of a language adequately? These are questions to which answers are to be found by considering language as a semeiotic, a system of signs.

As indicated in an earlier post (“The Telos of Linguistic Change,” April 7, 2013), one’s first recourse in a productive approach to understanding the rationale of language change should be to thinking about change in a broader framework, to wit:

“[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” (Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers 6.101; emphasis added).

This quotation from the modern founder of the theory of signs is to be combined with what the prominent interwar theoretician of historical linguistics, Edward Sapir, characterized as “drift” (both passages are from his Selected Writings, p. 382):

“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.”

“Wherever the human mind has worked collectively and unconsciously, it has striven for and attained unique form. The important point is that the evolution of form has a drift in one direction, that it seeks poise, and that it rests, relatively speaking, when it has found this poise.”

Present possibilities with greater or lesser powers of actualization exist at any given historical stage of a language. Innovations that come to be full-fledged social facts, i. e., changes, must have something about their form that enables them to survive. The aggregate of such innovations-become-changes is what constitutes the drift of a language.

Beyond such broad generalizations, what is needed in order to understand individual linguistic changes is the principle whereby drift is further defined as what might be called “the triumph of the iconic.” In other words, the trajectory of change, in the long run, follows an arc leading toward iconicity, which is the alignment between form and meaning. In the working out of this trajectory, the form-meaning alignment is regularly aided by a real tendency of change from the marked to the unmarked member of the linguistic units and categories involved.

Here is an example from contemporary American English. For some time now, the adjective fewer in the colloquial variety of speech has been replaced by less, so that the normative (and more conservative) “fewer people” comes out as “less people,” etc. The norm requires fewer whenever the noun quantified is a so-called count noun, and less when it is a so-called mass noun. The directionality of the replacement of fewer by less even when the noun modified is a mass noun is clear in one distinct respect: the shorter of the two adjectives is winning out in the drift of the language over the longer one. The semiotic upshot of this drift is equally clear: the meaning of lesser number is better fitted to the form that is shorter, i. e., to less rather than to fewer, since the latter is one syllable longer than the former. Here we have the establishment over time of the iconic principle, understood in this case as the triumph of uniformity over variety.

Markedness also plays a role in this development collaterally. The marked is defined as the conceptually more restricted than the unmarked, a principle that can take several hypostases. Here the adjective fewer, applying as it does normatively to count nouns, is the marked member because individuation (as in counting) is marked vis-à-vis non-individuation (as in sets or groups). The drift away from fewer toward less is thus an instantiation of the semiotic principle that dictates the change from marked to unmarked in the long run.



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