On Larry Hyman on the universality of the syllable

The sound strings of all spoken languages alternate between consonants and vowels (CVCV…), so it is natural for the naive observer to assume that all languages also have syllables. But phonologists do not want to posit superfluous categories, so they need to be convinced that there are some generalizations that need to be stated in terms of a category “syllable”. Chomsky & Halle (1968) thought that they could describe English without positing a syllable, but its seems that since [Bybee] Hooper 1972, everyone has assumed that syllables play a role in phonology – not only in English, but probably in all languages. Especially phonotactic constraints such as consonant cooccurrence are much easier to state if reference can be made to a syllable constituent. But are all languages like English? Well, most probably are, but Hyman (1983) noted that in the Nigerian language Gokana, syllable constituent is not required for any kind of phonological generalization. “Prosodic stems” have the shape CV(V)(C)(V)(V) (e.g. té, bèè, búl, kávà, bùùrù, kùmìè, ʔoòà, bèèàɛ̀), and no reference to the syllable is necessary to describe the phonotactically possible patterns.

So does this mean that we have an exception to the universal that “all languages have syllables”? Continue reading

Deductive vs. aprioristic theories: Continuing the debate on word-class universality

Generative and nongenerative diversity linguists do not often engage in debates on general issues, but the topic of word-classes (nouns, verbs and adjectives) seems to be an area where some kind of dialogue seems to be not impossible (cf. Baker 2003, Croft 2009, and the 2005 LSA Institute class taught jointly by Baker and Croft, presenting their contrasting approaches to the students). Now the open-peer-commentary journal Theoretical Linguistics has published a very nice target article on word-classes in Chamorro by Sandy Chung (Chung 2012a), with commentaries by various linguists, including three nongenerativists (Bill Croft, Eva van Lier, and myself). Continue reading

Collaborative comparative linguistics via specialist consortia

To compare many different (including little-studied) languages around the world, comparative linguists need access to good data, which is often difficult to get. Many research questions cannot be answered easily by consulting reference works such as dictionaries and grammars. We often see some interesting variation between a number of languages we know well, and we’d like to know how the parameter in question is distributed elsewhere, ideally throughout the world. What should we do? Continue reading

Nouns are prosodically privileged over verbs

At the recent LIPP Symposium on parts of speech in Munich, one of the most interesting papers was Jennifer L. Smith’s paper on “Parts of speech in phonology” (see also Smith 2011). She examines 20 languages from 11 families and finds that in almost all cases where nouns, verbs and adjectives behave differently phonologically, the nouns have more phonological contrasts than adjectives, and these in turn have more contrasts than verbs. A well-known example is Spanish, where stress is contrastive in nouns (cf. 1a-b) and adjectives, but verbs show uniform stress for all verb classes. Continue reading

Should linguistic diversity be conserved like biodiversity?

This is not a question that Gorenflo et al. (2012) ask in their widely publicized PNAS article on the “co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity”. They seem to subtly presuppose a positive answer, but one wonders about the precise implications of this.

The contribution appeared as a regular scientific paper in the high-profile Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, and it contains the usual trappings of such a paper: maps, charts and statistics. Like many PNAS papers on readily accessible topics, it was widely reported on in the media (e.g. here and here). But the major finding is neither new, nor do the authors have an explanation: Continue reading

Expressing ontological categories in Brazilian languages and elsewhere

The paper by Hengeveld et al. (2012) in Functions of Language on “Semantic categories in the indigenous languages of Brazil” was probably written by Kees Hengeveld (with his characteristically clear style), but there are many “al.”: eleven additional coauthors! So it beats Bickel et al. (2007), which with its nine coauthors seems to be the record for papers in Language so far. In the natural sciences, of course, papers with many authors are now commonplace (sometimes even with hundreds of authors), so linguistics seems to be catching up with a wider trend. Continue reading

Do we know what “noun incorporation” is?

Linguists treat many technical terms as so well-established that they are not in need of explanation or definition, or that any further discussion is a secondary matter. But even a widely used term such as “word” is not well-understood (Haspelmath 2011), so it is not surprising that more specialized terms such as “noun incorporation” suffer from the same problems. This is clearest if one defines “noun incorporation” in terms of wordhood, as in de Reuse (1994a: 2842), where noun incoproration is defined as

“the morphological construction where a nominal lexical element is added to a verbal lexical element; the resulting construction being a verb and a single word”

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How to talk about role coding: cases and index-sets, nominative/accusative, subject/object, agent/patient

As an Athabaskanist working in Russia, Andrej Kibrik has long been interested in the head-marking/dependent-marking typology: Athapaskan languages mark the major clause roles by person prefixes on the verb, whereas the languages of Russia (Uralic, Turkic, Nakh-Daghestanian, etc.) almost all show extensive case-marking and limited person-indexing. In Kibrik (2012) (a paper that was originally presented at the LENCA conference in Kazan), he now urges linguists working on head-marking languages to draw the consequences from the parallelism between head and dependent marking and to use terminology familiar from case systems, i.e. “nominative/accusative” and “ergative/absolutive”, rather than “subject/object” or “agent/patient”.

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Creoles are paradigmatically simplified but may otherwise be complex

For a long time, linguists have had the impression that creoles are particularly simple, but a precise and readily testable formulation of this insight has been difficult to come by. Important contributions to the recent debate include McWhorter (2001), Parkvall (2008) and Bakker et al. (2011). The latter two cite a lot of cross-linguistic data that will convince many quantitatively minded readers. But Good (2012) advances the debate in a different way, by taking apart the seemingly simple notion of “simplicity”. That complexity (and its converse, simplicity) can be understood in different ways should be clear, because these are simply words of the English language, not well-defined technical terms. Continue reading

Discussing framework-free grammatical theory

A few months ago, there was a lively discussion at Languagehat of my proposal that grammatical theory should be framework-free (Haspelmath 2010), and that each new language should be approached without preconceptions. Some discussants agreed, but others disagreed. As so often, the physics analogy came up:

I cannot imagine a physicist publishing an article saying, “We have no chance of discovering the Higgs Boson, and even if we did it would not solve the problem of where gravity comes from. So we ought to close CERN and go back to tabulating meticulous measurements of planetary motion.” And it seems that this kind of retrenchment is what is proposed for linguistics.

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“Impersonality” cross-linguistically

At the 2008 annual conference of the SLE in the Italian provincial town of Forlì, Andrej Malchukov and Anna Siewierska organized a workshop on “Impersonal constructions: a cross-linguistic perspective”. In August 2011, a 641-page volume was published by Benjamins, edited by the two workshop organizers. (Sadly, the publication of the book coincided with Anna Siewierska’s tragic death on 6 August 2011.) This is the first book on impersonal constructions cross-linguistically, and its 20 papers cover a wide range of languages (over 150 languages and families are listed in the index).

I have long wondered what the factor uniting the various phenomena traditionally called “impersonal” might be. Continue reading

A special kind of transitivity marking in Kerinci Malay

Like other Western Austronesian languages, Malay is well-known for its symmetrical voice system, but in this paper, McKinnon et al. (2011) report on something quite different in a little known Malay variety, Kerinci Malay, spoken in a valley near Mount Kerinci, the highest volcano of Indonesia. Kerinci has a distinction between an Absolute form and an Objective form for every transitive verb, e.g.

Absolute Objective
maka makən eat
kihat kihɨt pull out
kɟɨ kɟɨw chase

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Diversity Linguistics Comment

Diversity linguistics is the scientific study of human language in its full diversity, going beyond the study of major official languages, focusing in depth on particular lesser known languages or in breadth on comparison, whether structural-typological or historical.

Diversity linguistics has existed since the 18th century in a variety of ways, but until recently it has not been conceptualized as a coherent field of study with a community of scholars that are in constant dialogue with each other. In-depth study of small languages was done mostly by missionaries until a few decades ago; historical-comparative linguistics was seen as a way to supplement the historical study of the major languages (and the corresponding nations); and structural-typological comparison was long confined to a few linguists with philosophical interests.

This has been changing fast over the last few decades. With Joseph Greenberg’s empirical approach to universals and Noam Chomsky’s speculations about universal grammar, interest in general properties of human language structures has increased dramatically since the 1960s. The descriptive linguistics of underdescribed languages has realized that it can profit enormously from typological insights, so that the dependence becomes mutually – descriptivists and comparativists need each other’s works and insights. More and more descriptivists have ventured into typology, while armchair typologists have felt the need to go out and describe languages. And historical-comparative linguistics has changed quite radically, too: Historical linguists working on non-Indo-European languages are increasingly connected with each other across the language families, they are of course well-connected with fieldworkers (often fieldworkers become historical linguists or vice versa), and with the increasing importance of areal typology, they have become more and more interested in typology as well.

Thus, it is possible to speak of a field of “diversity linguistics”, even though this term is not widely used (yet). By adopting this term, linguists working within this field would signal that they feel responsible for, and competent in, a larger domain of study than is signaled by narrower terms like”typology”, “descriptive linguistics” or “historical linguistics”. Moreover, “diversity linguistics” sounds cool – contrast that with “descriptive linguistics”, which had a positive ring in the 1950s (cf. Gleason 1955) but is increasingly being replaced by “documentary linguistics” anyway. “Historical linguistics” sounds as if the practitioners spend most of their time in archives instead of using software from bioinformatics to unravel the human past. And “typology” is a term that no nonlinguist even begins to understand (which is why I prefer to replace it by “comparative linguistics”, or “structural-comparative linguistics” if a contrast with “historical-comparative linguistics” needs to be made).