How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

Quite a few people have argued in recent times that typological distributions should be explained with reference to diachronic change (e.g. Bybee (1988; 2006; 2008), Blevins (2004), Anderson (2005; 2016), (Plank 2007), Creissels (2008), and Cristofaro (2010; 2013; 2014)). As Bickel et al. (2015: 29) put it:

“statistical universals are not really synchronic in nature, but are rather the result of underlying diachronic mechanisms that cause languages to change in preferred or ‘natural’ ways”

This view seems to have been articulated first by Greenberg (1969; 1978), Continue reading

The evolution (or diachrony) of “language evolution”

Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?

One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Continue reading

The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

Evolving words: Darwin on Müller on Schleicher

“A struggle for life is constantly going on among quotations in academic writings. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.” Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it’s a variation on a bon mot attributed to Charles Darwin that you may have seen in any of a range of recent papers on how language evolves.

We’ve seen the remarkable role of acacia trees in language evolution (Geraint 2011); now behold a case of parallel evolution towards a mutant quotation. Terence Deacon in PNAS (2010); Morten Christiansen & Nick Chater in BBS (2008); Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland in Evolution (2004) — they all quote the following words from Darwin 1871/1874:1

A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.

Except that if you look up the original, you’ll find that these words aren’t by Darwin, but by Max Müller.

Continue reading

  1. The earliest work in which I found a version like this is Morten Christiansen’s 1994 Edinburgh PhD thesis. Very likely, that’s where it all started. []

Continent-wide typology: a recent trend within diversity linguistics

Classical Greenbergian typology is a world-wide enterprise: One studies a particular phenomenon in a wide range of languages from all corners of the earth. But in practice, most linguists who are interested in typology do not engage in world-wide comparison, and in fact, most linguists do not do much comparison at all: There are far more fieldworkers who are digging deep into individual languages than “desk typologists”. This is as it should be, 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