The Physics of Language: Toward a Phase-Transition of Language Change

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Interdisciplinary work, such as this, often requires a reform of more traditional notions in order to include novel views. Functionaliaation is such a notion and much of the thrust of this work is that for purposes of explanatory theory, the notion must be redefined. In this thesis, functionalization involves a much broader class of linguistic behavior than what is usually understood in linguistics. We understand functionaliaation, as linguists understand it, to involve a loss of lexicality, but by this we mean a loss of a particular sort of lexicality and that particularization has the consequence that the term as we use it applies to a much broader class of linguistic items than is usually comprehended by the term. Our specific sample involves instances of perceptually bound lexical vocabulary that acquire a function of perceptually divorced uses - such as connectives, but also mental, religious and ethical vocabulary. This definition of functionalization includes but is not bound by the notion of grammaticaliaation and as such departs from its traditional linguistic use. We have chosen this vocabulary because it lends itself more readily to reform than does the more entrenched notion of grammaticaliaation. Given this definition we notice that a large portion of our linguistic uses are functionalized that is, have perhaps discoverable causal roles, but causal roles, the explanation of which must be an evolutionary explanation that draws upon the causal roles of ancestral forms of speech. If such vocabulary is to be given definition, then it must be given definition in terms of language that has undergone a similar transformation The research reported in this thesis treats language as a physical system subject to the same forces as other systems describable in physical terms. Moreover, we suggest that the language of mechanical transformations such as first-order phase transitions is directly applicable to such fundamental structural changes in language. When it is borne in mind that the process of grammaticalization is itself evolved, it becomes evident further that such physical phenomena as first-order phase transitions could explain the emergence of grammaticalization itself, and therefore the original advent of syntax.

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Special Arrangements: Philosophy/Computing Science - Simon Fraser University
Thesis type: 
Thesis (Ph.D.)