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Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution
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  • Page extent: 342 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.67 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 401
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: P142 .R58 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Linguistic change
    • Evolution (Biology)
    • English language--Phonology, Historical

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521826716 | ISBN-10: 0521826713)

DOI: 10.2277/0521826713

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

 (Stock level updated: 17:01 GMT, 25 November 2015)


This book takes an exciting perspective on language change, by explaining it in terms of Darwin's evolutionary theory. Looking at a number of developments in the history of sounds and words, Nikolaus Ritt shows how the constituents of language can be regarded as mental patterns, or 'memes', which copy themselves from one brain to another when communication and language acquisition take place. Memes are both stable in that they transmit faithfully from brain to brain, and active in that their success at replicating depends upon their own properties. Ritt uses this controversial approach to challenge established models of linguistic competence, in which speakers acquire, use, and shape language. In Darwinian terms, language evolution is something that happens to, rather than through, speakers, and the interests of linguistic constituents matter more than those of their human 'hosts'. This book will stimulate debate among evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists and linguists alike.

• Provides a new and controversial perspective on language change, which is likely to stimulate academic argument and further research • Demonstrates how the emerging new paradigm of memetics might be operationalised and put to the test • Combines insights from evolutionary biology, cognitive science and historical linguistics, and is therefore truly interdisciplinary


1. Introduction; 2. The historical perspective; 3. Approaching 'language change'; 4. The Darwinian approach; 5. Generalising Darwinism; 6. Towards an evolutionary theory of language; 7. What does all this imply for the study of language change?; 8. How to live with feet, if one happens to be a morph-meme; 9. The prosodic evolution of English word forms or the great trochaic conspiracy; 10. Conclusion.


'… addresses what may be legitimately regarded as one of the most fundamental questions a linguist can ask: why does language take the form it does? Ritt's answer is refreshingly novel, stimulating as well as astounding …' Thomas Berg, University of Hamburg

'… refreshingly novel, stimulating as well as astounding …' Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft

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