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The Uniformitarian Hypothesis and Prehistoric Linguistics​ by Peter Trudgill

Published on: 27-Jan-2015

​​One of the fundamental bases of modern historical linguistics is the uniformitarian principle: knowledge of processes that operated in the past can be inferred by observing ongoing processes in the present. Language structures in the past must have been subject to the same constraints as language structures in the present; and the mechanisms of linguistic change that operate around us today are the precisely the same as those which operated even in the remote past. According to Labov, this leads us to the methodological principle of using the present to explain the past: we cannot try to explain past changes in language by resorting to explanations that would not work for modern linguistic systems. I suggest that insofar as the characteristics of individual human languages are due to the nature of the human language faculty, there cannot be any questioning of this principle. We have to assume that the nature of the human language faculty is the same the world over, and that it has been so ever since humans became fully human. But what if some of the characteristics of human languages are due to social factors? That would mean that the linguistic present might not altogether be like the linguistic past; which would in turn mean that the methodology of using the present to explain the past could be less useful as a principle the further back in time we go. Human languages were spoken in neolithic and pre-neolithic communities for 96%- 98% of their history. Labov, in his discussion of the uniformitarian principle, warns that we must be “wary of extrapolating backward in time to neolithic pre-urban societies”. Clearly this admonition becomes even more forceful in any consideration of palaeolithic societies.​

Date : Friday, 6 February 2015 

Time: 4.00pm to 5.30pm

Venue​: HSS Auditorium (HSS-B1-14)​

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