Sound inventories and population size

When I had lunch with two phoneticians the other day, the question came up whether there is a correlation between the size of the phoneme inventory of a language and its population size. Neither of us knew, and we started to speculate in which direction it should go. My guess was that larger languages should have smaller inventories and vice versa, while the two expert expected the opposite. One of the reasons for my conjecture was the observation by Lupyan and Dale (2010) in Plos ONE (Lupyan G, Dale R (2010) Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559) that larger languages tend to have less morphological complexity (and vice versa). Continue reading

On double accusative marking

Recently on LINGTYP, a question was raised, which can be paraphrased as such: are there languages in which the P of a transitive clause is marked by two co-occurring flags (‘case-markers’), e.g., ACC1-N-ACC2 (or, presumably, N-ACC1-ACC2 or ACC1-ACC2-N)? After quite a bit of back-and-forth, it turns out that such situations seem to be extremely rare, while the co-occurrence of indexing and flagging seems to be much more common. Based on the discussion, and a closer look at some other sources, it turns out that only three scenarios are known to lead to double flagging. Interestingly (if not surprisingly), they all involve Differential Object Marking (DOM). 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. []

An inflection/derivation distinction on the other side of the globe?

There is a tradition of dividing all of (non-compounding) morphology into inflection and derivation in European languages, and like other European traditions, this one has been carried over to languages around the world. But on what basis?

There are clear cases of inflection and derivation where nobody would argue Continue reading

The costs of ignoring language change

Quite a few people have already responded to Keith Chen’s paper, but as far as I can see, none have highlighted a rather glaring problem with Chen’s claims: Chen completely ignores the hard-won insights about language structure that have emerged from research on language change, especially grammaticalization studies.

If I understand Chen right, he’s arguing for a direct, causal (‘Whorfian’) link between language structure and ‘habitual behavior.’ As he writes, ‘my findings are largely consistent with the hypothesis that languages with obligatory future-time reference lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behavior.’ Continue reading

Stuck in the futureless zone

The Yale economist Keith Chen has made quite a stir by his claim that there is a connection between grammatical marking of the future and future-related behavior: in short, that speakers of languages which mark the future save less and care less about their health. The purported explanation is that obligatory marking will make the future seem more distant and thus less important to care about. A paper on the topic, forthcoming in American Economic Review, is available from his homepage; in addition, there is a TED talk and numerous media reactions which can easily be found by googling.

This touches me personally since the linguistics that Chen bases himself on is to a significant extent taken from my own work and that of the EUROTYP Tense and Aspect group that I led in the nineties (Dahl 2000a). Continue reading

Is creole distinctiveness what we want to know about?

Over the last 15 years, some creolists have debated the question of creole distinctiveness (or “exceptionalism”). Some creolists such as McWhorter (2005) and Parkvall (2008) have argued that creoles are typologically special, while others (such as Chaudenson, DeGraff, Mufwene and Ansaldo) have emphasized the continuity between creoles and other languages. Continue reading

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

A catalogue of categories?

Linguists have their catalogue of languages, biologists are working on their catalogue of species, and chemists have their catalogue (“periodic system”) of elements. Full inventorization is clearly a desirable goal of science, and some kind of order in the phenomena is a prerequisite for deeper understanding. But do we also want a catalogue of linguistic categories? Continue reading

Obituary: Alexander E. Kibrik (26.03.1939-31.10.2012)

Alexander Kibrik (Александр Евгеньевич Кибрик) passed away on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 after a long illness.

Alexander Kibrik was the head of the Chair of theoretical and applied linguistics of the Philological faculty of the Moscow State University from 1992  and until his death, and was involved with the department since its earliest days in 1960-ies. Continue reading

Syntax of the World’s Languages 5 in Dubrovnik, a conference report

Eight years ago we decided to organize a new kind of conference in Leipzig, a syntax conference for linguists with a serious interest in the whole range of diversity of the world’s languages. In other words, a conference for fieldworkers and typologists, where the comparativists can meet the linguists with first-hand data experience, and where (unlike at typology conferences) fieldworkers who focus on a single language do not need to feel out of place (Syntax of the World’s Languages). This proved to be a success, and after Lancaster, Berlin and Lyon, the fifth conference in this biennial series was organized by the University of Zagreb’s Ranko Matasović, in Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast. Continue reading

Typology: The study of unity or diversity?

Michael Daniel, in his chapter ‘Linguistic typology and the study of language’ in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, sets out to define the field of linguistic typology and situate it within linguistics generally. He opens with this:

Linguistic typology compares languages to learn how different languages are, to see how far these differences may go, and to find out what generalizations can be made regarding cross-linguistic variation. (Daniel 2011:44)

He also notes that “Most linguistic disciplines have cross-linguistic comparison in the background, if not as their main method or object of inquiry […]” (Daniel 2011:44). This is unsurprising, Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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Towards Proto-Niger-Congo, a conference report

Last week, I attended an interesting and well-organized conference in Paris entitled Towards Proto-Niger-Congo: Comparison and reconstruction. The talks represented most of the major branches of Niger-Congo, as well as stock-level surveys, and some of the highlights from my own perspective were the following:

  • Gregory Anderson’s discussion of S/TAM/P (pronounced as “stamp”) morphemes in Niger-Congo where one often finds “portmanteau morphs that encode the referent properties of subjects in addition to various TAM and polarity categories”. Continue reading