Human perception: change as the default option

Thomas Leverett 10-06

part of an unfinished manuscript and set of essays by Thomas Leverett.

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Language change is not directed from above; it's not directed by the system, by genetics, by law, or by any other mechanism than the small players, us. In setting up a model, or a system, to best explain how this change takes place, we can look to sociology and to models that have already been set up for human behavior. This framework will rely on several principles:

1. There are some innovators in language. But the vast majority of language change takes place for the most elemental of reasons: because it's easiest; because it's the default; because that causes the speaker the least amount of work and takes up the least amount of the speaker's limited memory and/or brain space. Speakers need, above all, to be efficient, and therefore program themselves to do the simplest possible thing, the default. If language change can be defined as redefinition of the default, most language change will by definition be accounted for by natural scientific principles. Our brains are constantly reorganizing to find the best way to store and access information, but we are also constantly analyzing and redefining elements of our environment. Changing our language is a response, an adaptation, to changes in the environment. Like most adaptation, it is natural; it is driven by natural needs and desires, and it is for our own benefit and ease of functioning.

2. We use what is referred to as the looking-glass self in determining what we should consider the default; what we should seek to produce. We imagine what our listener is to hear; we picture the image that each sound or utterance will convey; we choose among images; and finally, our choice is based on the image that most suits the image we want our partner (in the communicating act) to receive.

(Note: I have yet to map out exactly how this will appear.)

We in communicating are intensely aware of the way we are being seen by our partner(s) in the communicating act. The speaker wants to convey his/her own meaning, and nothing else except what he/she intends to convey. He/she constructs an image based on the way he/she assumes the partner is interpreting what he/she is saying. For example, in a given sentence, in a set of words, he/she may be aware of choices. One choice will sound southern; another choice will sound academic, this one will sound pretentious, this one is local vernacular; this one is actually bad grammar but otherwise ok. The speaker will choose the one that suits the occasion, and will choose the unmarked one if circumstances don't encourage one of the others. The speaker assumes that all variants of any given construction have variation for a purpose: they carry extra meaning, extra association, as for example those listed above. But the speaker most likely seeks to avoid unwanted association, seeks to do what is simplest, do what most others do in similar circumstances, as the price of going off on a different path is often unknown, often high, but generally not worth even thinking about when one is busy.

Thus, in seeking the default, the speaker is generally doing what's easiest, carrying the least burden, conveying the least amount of information possible, in order to make life simpler. Redefining the default will be an extension of this process; when the speaker realizes that his/her speech is carrying an extra, undesired message, he/she will redefine the default and change his/her production in order to avoid that complication. Thus language change happens because it's the easiest thing for the speaker to do.

Thus all sound change is ultimately related to humans just doing what humans do: going from one place to another in the simplest possible way, not thinking too much about the route, doing what others do; paying attention to others' responses; making assumptions about the price of breaking the rules.

People aren't really all that complicated. Neither are grammars themselves. They have to be simple, or the millions of people who have to use them every hour would have more trouble than they do. The grammar of any given language is ultimately explainable and understandable, less complicated than it seems, as millions of people construct their own models of it, carry it around, and apply it to the above situation(s) thousands of times daily, and still have room in their brains to do all the other survival-oriented tasks that make thier day...

Blog posts related to this section: through the looking glass, 10-24-06 v

Note: the following originally appeared on the CESL website (

but was moved here in 2010.

Language as an emergent, self-organizing system


Principles of language and language change

Principles of self-organized systems

Dialects and self-organization

Human perception: change as the default option

Bibliography: Language, traffic and self-organized systems