November 15, 2007

Fitchifying biology, memes and historical linguistics

Guest post by
Tecumseh Fitch

My recent News & Views article in Nature titled "Linguistics: An invisible hand" (Nature 449: 665-667, 11 October 2007) garnered more attention than I expected, both from the media and scientific colleagues. Though this attention was mostly kind and positive, my article aroused the ire of historical linguist Sally Thomason who flamed me quite thoroughly on Language Log a few weeks ago in her two posts (this one here and this one here) on "fitchification". Alerted to this attack by Geoff Pullum, I was trembling in my boots (OK, my house slippers to be perfectly honest) as I pointed my browser to the link. But as I read my fears subsided: despite the denouncements of the "hair-raising errors" in my article, Thomason's screed displayed the sure signs of nearly complete misunderstanding of my article's function.

However, I slowly recognized that Professor Thomason has unwittingly given me the perfect gift to illustrate what was the point of my article, and it is because of this that I write. Thomason has introduced to the English lexicon a new verb fitchify (thankfully left undefined). Although a Google search reveals "Abercrombie-and-Fitchification" in the prior record, I vote for independent treatment of Thomason's new coinage, and here I shall attempt to unpack this verb, using the evidence at hand.

Thomason's intended meaning for fitchify seemed reasonably clear, but, as is so typical in language, context left open a number of other possibilities for the "true" meaning of fitchification. Indeed, as I read further, an explosion of possible definitions presented themselves. The question is especially intriguing (to me, and perhaps some other Fitches out there on the planet) given that "Fitchism", "fitchosity", "fitchulation" and the like are words quite unlikely to have much staying power, for good phonological, not to mention intellectual, reasons. In contrast I find "fitchify" rolls fetchingly off the tongue, and look forward to future uses.

But, first things first. I gather that Thomason's original intent is something like:

fitch'ify v.t. 1. ruin, spoil, botch, foul up or otherwise make a mess of an attempt to summarize, in the space of a few paragraphs, some complex topic.

The complex topic in question was "the history of historical linguistics" (N.B.: a topic with worrisome signs of infinite regress worn right on its sleeve), and the botching in question (near as I can judge) was my inexplicable failure to mention the contributions of the Neogrammarians to said field, and the importance of regular sound change.

However, this first proposed definition of "fitchify" runs into immediate problems, and can't be the correct one. 1

Thomason's post is titled "Fitchifying the history of linguistics," and decries my supposed attempt to explain why "historical linguistics failed". The problem with definition one is that my article did not present a history of linguistics, nor of historical linguistics, but rather of the links between historical linguistics and evolutionary biology (especially between Darwin and the philologists of his time).

My appointed task in the article (as is the explicit nature of "News & Views" pieces) was (1) to offer an accessible introduction to and summary of the two main scientific reports that appeared in that issue (that's the "News" part) and (2) perhaps offer some contextualization or mild elaboration thereupon (that's the "Views"). Those two papers, by Lieberman et al. and Pagel et al., analyzed historical linguistic change using powerful statistical techniques adapted from evolutionary biology. The "News" part of my article attempted to summarize those articles, and to place their findings, and their importance, in a larger scientific context. I further suggested that such work might offer a bridge a long-standing gap between both biological and more traditional historical approaches to language, and more importantly between diachronic and synchronic linguistics.

Perhaps, then, in this context, fitchify means "offer an accessible summary"?

fitch'ify v.t. 2. summarize in accessible English an otherwise daunting or technical work of science, and place it in a broader context.

The critiques Thomason directs at my article, and the supposed errors and misunderstandings she found, were directed nearly exclusively at the "News" portion, which simply reported the findings of the Lieberman and Pagel articles. The class of possible "errors" for a summary of this sort are rather limited:

(1) Propagation of errors in the target articles themselves, as stupidly relayed in a lay-person's summary; whence:

fitch'ify v.t. 3. repeat or transmit uncritically, in the lay press, errors committed in a scientific paper.

or, perhaps, (2) Inaccurate, insensitive or otherwise inadequate summary of the (correct) target articles, giving us:

fitch'ify v.t. 4. bowdlerize, inadequately abridge, or otherwise make a hack job of an attempt to summarize a scientific paper.

Unfortunately for either definitional gambit, Thomason admits to not having found the time to read the articles summarized; 2  so neither of these can be the correct definition in this particular context. But, at least logically speaking, both definitions are still viable contenders. Perhaps Professor Thomason has since read the articles and can breathe new life into these otherwise moribund possible definitions.

Until then, we seem, by process of elimination, to be narrowing the range of possibilities, and thus honing in on an adequate definition of fitchification. The "Views" portion was my little opportunity to say something about where I thought this new work might lead, and to integrate these findings with the insights of eminent historical linguist Rudi Keller (from whom the term "invisible hand", as well as the example of the pejoration of "wench", were borrowed, with proper attribution). I also mentioned exciting new work combining theoretical and experimental laboratory work by linguists like Simon Kirby and his colleagues. Fortunately, however, this portion of the article escaped the wrath of Thomason's sharp pen, so I needn't bore everyone by defending it here: please read the originals if you're interested.

I further suggested that drawing explicit parallels between evolutionary theory and historical linguistics might be of benefit to both fields, and more particularly for some possible future field of "memetics". And it is here that I must thank Thomason for her little gift: a new meme whose fate I can now track.

"Meme" is a rather successful coinage of Richard Dawkins. The term refers to a transmissible chunk of imitated form, or of meaning. Thus, a meme is an idea that can spread from mind to mind in much the same way as genes are transmitted from body to body through the generations, and it invites all sorts of analogies (the "meme pool", "memetic evolution", the struggle among competing memes, etc). Unfortunately, till now, there has been little use of the most apt referent of the term: namely the changes in word structure and/or meaning that are the traditional bread-and-butter of historical linguistics. If ever there is to be a rigorous, empirical approach to memetics, the richest source of data will be that of historical linguistics: observing the fates of new words as they struggle for survival, mutating their form and their meaning through successive iterations of "cultural evolution". I made this point precisely because I agree with Thomason that historical linguistics is "one of the most successful historical sciences you'll find anywhere".

We are left, at this moment in the evolution of the brand new meme fitchify, with a few remaining top contenders for its meaning. One remaining contender derives from the familiar if tiresome fact that the mere mention of Noam Chomsky's name seems to be enough to drive a certain cadre of linguists apoplectic. My suspicion is that part of Thomason's readiness to skewer my article was that she read my summary of Chomsky's famous I- vs. E-language distinction as some sort of vindication or adulation of the currently popular synchronic approach to linguistics: a reflection of Chomskyan triumphalism or the like. This gives us:

fitch'ify v.t. 5. incite linguists to riot and mayhem with the mere mention of Noam Chomsky's name, or brief summary of one or more of his ideas.

Given my association with the infamous paper by Chomsky and Marc Hauser in Science in 2002, or my subsequent use of the term "Chomsky hierarchy" in some of my experimental work on artificial grammar learning (both contributions well roasted in various Language Log posts), I must be honest and admit that this meaning might have some serious staying power. But I hope not. More likely, I think, the top contender from my analyses for the future most successful interpretation (and I admit to being biased) is:

fitch'ify v.t. & i. 6. summarize in accessible English an exciting new scientific result or subject, in a fashion liable to incite the ire of traditionalists (whence fitchification, n., the act or result of fitchifying)

I, for one, intend to keep fitchifying (senses 2 and 6) to the best of my ability, avoiding sense 1,3 and 4 at all costs, and sadly accepting the continued possibility of sense 5. In any case, now the horses are out of the gate and neither Thomason nor I can control where they shall go: at this point the matter is in the "invisible hands" of memetic evolution, and the mouths and keyboards of future language users.

May the best meme win!

W. Tecumseh Fitch
University of St Andrews


1. I do admit to one actual error, notice by Bob Ladd and pointed out to me and to Nature by Geoff Pullum: an artist's error which bizarrely granted the ancestor of the Slavic languages the title "Islamic" (see the published correction). A supposed "simple mistake" concerned the age of Proto-Indo--European, which Thomason pegs at 6000 years. I'll stick with my more conservative estimate -- "some 10,000 years" — given the outer range estimate of the divergence of PIE at 9800 years before present, reported in an earlier paper in Nature by Gray & Atkinson, and derived using reasonably rigorous mathematical methods. But obviously little rides on this estimate, and of course the topic is controversial, because the fact is no one actually knows.

2. In her second post, almost midway through, Thomason writes "(and I admit that I haven't yet read the articles he refers to, to see if they make any distinctions according to the type of lexical change)". Thomason does, however, gallantly concede that the findings in said articles (at least as fitchified by me) are "not necessarily ... trivial".

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 15, 2007 04:11 AM