Re: memetic speciation? [was what's in a meme]

Bill Benzon (
Fri, 20 Jun 1997 12:12:52 +0000

Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 12:12:52 +0000
From: Bill Benzon <>
Subject: Re: memetic speciation? [was what's in a meme]

If Price asks:

> a. what sense of genentic do you mean. I assume the general rather
> than
> specifically gene based.

Yes. The term "genetic" is common in historical linguistics, but it
doesn't imply anything about biology. It's strictly a cultural term.

> b. I was not suggesting a tree. Sure linguistic species cross
> pollenate as
> they evolve.

I don't in fact know if the term "taxonomy" implies a tree structure,
but trees are certainly a common classification structure. My point
about linguistic methodology is that it seems to assume that languages
genealogies form a tree structure and the comparison techniques rule
"cross-pollinations" out of court. When historical linguists make their
comparisons they typically compare languages with respect to a small
carefully-selected set of items -- most traditionally, sound changes in
a set of words common to a group of languages. Part of the methodology
is to exclude words borrowed from other languages on the ground that
such words are not central to a language.

Creoles are a different matter. Creoles arise rather quickly - 2 or 3
generations - and occur when people from different language groups are
thrown together in a new community and have to communicate with one
another on a regular basis. Most of the creoles which have been studied
are the result of colonial activies by European nations, which means we
have creoles arising from the interaction between widely differing
linguistic species -- rather like a herd of antelope and a flock of
ducks interbreeding and producing viable duckalopes in short order.

So, where do you put creoles in the classification system? If you look
at Ruhlen's book you'll find he has a Creole taxon at the top-level of
his system. That implies that these languages have no parent language
but the Ur-language of them all, which simply is not true. They have
very identifiable parents - 2 or 3 or even more of them. But the
classification system won't let you put such languages somewhere down in
the structure with links to all of the parents.

Of course, classification systems of all but the simplest collections of
objects are going to have difficult cases. The existence of difficult
cases shouldn't automatically invalidate the classification scheme. But
in the case of language, we have a methodology which is designed to
produce a certain kind of result. In that case I'm not sure it is wise
to allow creoles to be treated as problematic exceptions. It is clear
that creolization produces genealogies which do not have the form of a
tree. And thus it seems to me at least possible that some or many of the
difficulties down in the taxonomic tree exist because there has been
extensive creolization for which we have no evidence in the historical
or archeological record.

I should also indicate that I'm not an expert in comparative
linguistics. It did a bit of reading because I was thinking about
cultural speciation and language is the most extensively classified
cultural system. When I discovered that the methodology is desiged to
yield a tree eventhough borrowing and creolization are well-known

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