The teleological illusion in linguistic ‘drift’

Choice and purpose in semantic evolution

David G. Butt, Alison Moore, Kathryn Tuckwell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


…if this drift of language is not merely the familiar set of individual variations seen in vertical perspective, that is historically, instead of horizontally, that is in daily experience, what is it? Edward Sapir 1921:154–155) I have called this principle by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection… (Charles Darwin 1998:88–89) Choice’: a problem, an opportunity, and a proposal Linguistic models of all varieties have invoked the notion of ‘choice’, whether explicitly as in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) or implicitly through various fundamental concepts like ‘paradigm’ and ‘associative axis’, ‘agnation’, or even ‘optional’ versus ‘obligatory transformations’. The idea of choice as ‘meaning potential’ seems congruent also with the experience of language: as Halliday (this volume) has put it: “All human activity involves choice: doing this rather than doing that…meaning this rather than meaning that.” Furthermore, the assumption of ‘purpose’ implicit in ‘choice’, or of a more narrowly understood ‘goal-orientation’, is the heuristic device by which most linguistic theory has been elaborated: that is, by which it has been turned into detailed description. Registers and even literary genres are pragmatically defined, or at least given their ‘family resemblance’ characterisations, in terms of general social functions, cultural tasks, community transactions (Greek pragma: ‘the business to hand’). These functions are declared further by the phases, elements, stages or moves which constitute the process of completing such transactions. At the level of lexicogrammar, one can see mood systems, as described in the terms of the traditional Western grammars, as a spectrum of human ‘strivings’ to affect others, namely, by indicating, declaring, interrogating, wishing, hypothesising, commanding, seeking agreement, etc. Even the common inclusion of ‘infinitive’ in the mood classifications bears out categorisation by purpose: these are the clauses that have, as yet, no designated task in the finite world of human ‘purport’. Linguistics has been crafted out of a reflexive stance to the goal directedness of communicative behaviours. The evidence includes the continuity of Rhetoric into the twentieth-first century – explicitly developed as it was by Aristotle as a ‘science’ of linguistic persuasion.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSystemic Functional Linguistics
Subtitle of host publicationExploring Choice
EditorsLise Fontaine, Tom Bartlett, Gerard O'Grady
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139583077
ISBN (Print)9781107036963
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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