Now he's endorsing the French model?
Posted by aogFriday, 12 October 2007 at 19:32 TrackBack Ping URL

I suspect it’s just me, but I find Orrin Judd’s complete misunderstanding of evolutionary theory endlessly amusing. He gets it spectacularly wrong here, in fact supporting the very opposite of his point.

He starts off with this article about the predictability of general trends of linguistic change for irregular verbs1. Certainly an interesting topic, but Judd loses the thread when he comments

Note that the evolution in question is Intelligent Design.

No, quite the opposite. The linguistic evolution is basically random — none of the actors who change the language design the change. The very predictability is also evidence for a non-designed result. An actual example of Intelligent Design in language is France, with its government department for defining the language. What we observe in practice is that such control doesn’t work, it is overwhelmed by other forces. Not much of an endorsement.

1 Something that came up as a signficant point in my doctoral thesis.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Andrea Harris Friday, 12 October 2007 at 22:57

He seems to be making the mistake that a comparison for illustrative purposes — “irregular verbs evolve in a predictable manner — just like genes and living organisms” — actually implies a real-world relationship between the two. He might as well be saying the phrase “family tree” means each family consists of an actual, physical tree.

People make this mistake all the time, and it bugs me.

Peter Burnet Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 06:09

You are quite right, Andrea, but for every person who makes that mistake there are three who believe just that. Those memes can jump from one person to another like ticks.

AOG, French linguistic dirigisme is a joke, not because it doesn’t work, but because Gallic bluster keeps distorting where it sits in today’s world and where it is going. In fact, English-speakers who love to predict the universal triumph of English have a few problems they always ignore. I am constantly astounded by the efforts of modern, rational folks to preserve and guard totally useless and even cacophonous minor languages like Finnish or Dutch, and of course my beloved Quebec is one of the best examples of linguistic resistance. What we fail to understand is that the adoption of English for educational or business purposes does not necessarily undermine the strength of the local language in private and community life. And then there are periodic reactions against the encroaching language, as in India. If the “English as universal language” futurists were right, we should all be speaking Latin now.

And we know this, otherwise why would you folks be fussing so nervously about Spanish?

Lingustic nature red in tooth and claw?

Peter Burnet Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 06:39

BTW, AOG, if you are attracted to the quaint notion that Darwinism is useful in explaining linguistic development, don’t you have a little problem with your argument? We all know Darwin said natural selection is analagous to artificial breeding, but I don’t recall him ever saying it was superior to it or more effective.

The Force be with you, or at least with your memes.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 08:28

Not Darwinism per se, but the conceptual and mathematical tools that are used in evolutionary theory work on this kind of linguistic evolution as well. Whether that implies a real world relationship is something I will leave to other philosophers.

It’s hard to say whether natural or artificial selection is “superior” without defining the term. More efficient? More powerful? More effective? I have to rush off, but I would note that if linguistic dirigisme fails, it’s hard to call it superior. You might also want to check out genetic algorithms which makes the “which is better” argument more of one. This is a field where the most intelligent of designers say “it’s too much for us, let’s use random evolution instead”.

Michael Herdegen Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 10:26

And we know this, otherwise why would you folks be fussing so nervously about Spanish?

Because the “English first” crowd and the “universalist English” crowd are two very seperate groups. Indeed, worrying over the fate of English is probably the least of their differences.

And, at a local level, stressing that immigrants should learn English can simply be a practical measure. If a big chunk of the community are immigrants, it’s problematic if they don’t speak English, and of course at the personal level it severely limits the potential and social mobility of the non-English speakers.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 11:03

I favor English only for the same reason I favor all websites using HTTP and HTML. I am also somewhat of a English universalist, which as Mr. Herdegen notes doesn’t automatically follow from the prior. A true English universalist sees no need for laws or other active mechanisms to promote the use of English, because as it’s inevitable one might as well just sit back and let it happen. As a blend, I favor laws about English only to the extant that citizens and government employees can’t be forced (by courts primarily) to use any other language, nor be legally required to provide translation services.

For instance, I would never support a law that required English only election ballots. I do support a law that says it is completely legal to have English only ballots. If some local polity or business wants to add Spanish or Urdu, that’s fine, I don’t care. By the same token, if such a polity or business decides on English only, that needs to be legal as well, any lawsuit to the contrary being thrown out a priori. No citizen or government agency should ever be legally forced to use any language besides standard English.

erp Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 12:07

Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of story. How about jobs where only Spanish or Chinese or some other language is spoken because the workers need to understand instructions and they don’t speak English. Also ESOL classes which penalize the kids and add tremendously to the costs of the public schools.

English is our language and those who want to come here must make the effort to learn it. The more of everyday life that is conducted in another language, the more will be the delay in learning English.

Let’s not even get into to the Press One for English meme.

joe shropshire Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 12:41

AOG: Genetic algorithms (the ones that I have seen used, anyway — product is here) are more akin to breeding than to evolution in the wild, so far as I can see. That there is a human in the loop with final say over what is a successful iteration and what is not, is enough to break the analogy you’re trying for. The designers are actually saying “this is too hard, let’s use selective breeding instead.”

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 13 October 2007 at 20:26

I don’t think I agree, although the reference to “simulated annealing” brought back memories…

Note that it’s considered a key feature that you can be an interventionist, rather than simply let the process proceed unmonitored. Fundamentally, then, the user isn’t selecting the crosses at every generation as is done in breeding. It is done automatically by the “rules of the universe” like evolution in the wild. When you use the product, do you actually intervene in every generation, or make your decision at the end of a run that consists of a large number of generations?

Or, perhaps I should quote the product literature

The genetic algorithm solves optimization problems by mimicking the principles of biological evolution, repeatedly modifying a population of individual points using rules modeled on gene combinations in biological reproduction. Due to its random nature, the genetic algorithm improves your chances of finding a global solution. [emphasis added]

That seems in accord to what I remember.

P.S. SWIPIAW did her doctoral work on compilers for parallel supercomputers (iWarp). Simulated annealing was a key application they used for testing purposes. My dad was a senior engineer on the Illiac IV project, so supercomputing’s been a family thing for a long time.

joe shropshire Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 00:08

Okay, you’re more of an intelligent designer than a breeder, then.

Peter Burnet Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 06:13

This is what I love about this site. AOG can post about language, poetry, sex, mothers-in-law or whatever, and with ten comments we’re guaranteed to be into algorithms or other techie-speak.

erp Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 07:46

Peter, you say that as if it is a bad thing.

pj Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 08:14

Peter - Latin was never spoken or written by more than a few percent of the population in England and other countries with minimal Roman populations. In places were a significant share of the population spoke Latin, it did become universal - as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. English is likely to become the universal language, because it is increasingly spoken and written by large population shares worldwide. Of course, the process may take 500 years.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 09:34

Spinozan belike.

Sadly, Intelligent Design these days means intelligent design of species, rather than of physical reality, which is the analogy of the GA tool you mentioned.

erp Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 09:42

pj, with global internet access, I think English will be the principal language of educated people in less than 50 years. We just lucked out.

Fifteen or so years or so ago, a friend went to a conference in France attended by people from many countries. All the papers and talk was in English, except for the frog who insisted everything be translated into French. This caused the conference to run late and since my friend had a car, the frog asked him for a ride to the airport.

Traffic was bad and it looked like they might miss their flights, when all of a sudden the frog started started speaking English and gave directions to a short cut so they caught their flights on time.

What’s French for chutzpah - oh yeah - gaul er gall.

Hey Skipper Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 16:52

I think English will be the principal language of educated people in less than 50 years.

No, now.

Everywhere I go, which is a whole bloody lot of places, English is exclusively the second language of choice where it isn’t the native language.

All road signs have English subtitles.

Some places, Singapore, for example, most of the signs are in English, with some, but not all, having native language (Malay? Chinese? heck, I dunno) subtitles.

I am used to people making fun of English speakers in general, and Americans in particular, for their unwillingness to learn another language.

To which I respond: For every non-English speaker in the world, what second language should they choose? Now, answer that question for an English speaker.

Hey Skipper Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 16:56

Oh, by the way, OJ’s title “Peppered Verbs” is a backhand reference to the peppered moths demonstration of naturalistic evolution.

That experiment was, as it turns out, flawed, although OJ prefers the term fraudulent.


The experiment has been repeated, without the flaws (wish I had time to find a link, but I don’t at the moment).

Same results.

Peter Burnet Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 18:22


If I had to bet, I’d bet with you, but certainly not because I think there is anything inevitable or evolutionary about it. To suggest otherwise strikes me as akin to saying that the American way will ultimately triumph everywhere, so we can all stop worrying, quit our jobs and strum guitars in the meadow.

I repeat, English may well become, indeed is becoming, the universal language of education and international discourse, but that doesn’t mean it will triumph at the dinner tables of the world. Even here in Canada, there is a widespread assumption that everybody in Quebec speaks English of necessity and only speaks French for quaint cultural or poetic resons. I live about two hundred yards from the national capital on the Quebec side and I run into young unilingual francophones every day. They aren’t the most sophisticated ones, but they earn livings, support families and vote.

erp Sunday, 14 October 2007 at 21:06

Dinner table chatting doesn’t count. You can stop worrying and strum guitars in the meadow because you know we’ll have our noses to the grindstone … and those unilingual sophisticates, I’ll bet anything they speak English and quite well.

Hey Skipper Monday, 15 October 2007 at 15:22

Speaking of getting it spectacularly wrong, I couldn’t help but notice OJ’s tag line:

Just as nothing speciates, they just remain verbs.

I have two words. One a noun, one a new verb:



There are thousands more.

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