Date: Wed, 20 May 1998 12:06:19 -0500
From: Gerald Cohen
Subject: Law/Principle of Least Effort

Once again, I am grateful for Larry Horn's messages on the Law/Princple
of Least Effort. Here now are some thoughts in regard to his second
message (5/19/98).

The overall picture I get is of an alleged law/principle with so many
exceptions that one wonders by what justification its existence as a
law/principle is advanced. Larry writes:
"In many cases, least effort is violated in parole while maintained
in langue." [G. Cohen: "langue refers to the standard language and
"parole" refers to any features that deviate from the standard, e.g. slips
of the tongue.]

If this statement is true, it seems to shake the Law/Principle
severely. After all, individuals speak individually; and if their
individual speech isn't subject to the Law/Principle of Least Effort, then
how can one agree with Martinet (_Elements_, p.167), when he writes:
"...Here [G. Cohen: i.e, in communication] as elsewhere, human
behavior is subject to the law of least effort, according to which man
gives of himself only so much as is necessary to attain the end he has in
As for French "pleonastic ne" (where "pleonastic" is synonymous with
"extraneous"), I fail to see how this "ne" increases the semantic content
at all.
So, with the Law/Principle having holes like a sieve, I would ask:
What evidence do we have that this Law/Principle really exists? Martinet,
_ibid._, in one same paragraph refers to this feature as a "law" and a
"tendency." Which is it? Simply because a few linguists have assumed that
a given law or principle exists does not mean that its existence should be
accepted without question in later generations.

Incidentally, here are two items I have written relevant to syntactic
blending and the Principle of Least Effort:
1) "Contributions To The Study of Blending," in: _Etymology and Linguistic
Principles, vol. l: Pursuit of Linguistic Insight_ (ed., Gerald Leonard
Cohen; Rolla, Missouri; published by the editor), pp. 81-94, esp. pp.90-91.

2) _Syntactic Blends in English Parole_ (= _Forum Anglicum_, vol. 15).
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. l78 pp., with bibliography, where mention is
made of Martinet and Zipf).

--Gerald Cohen