Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath’s (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading

On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd)

In his recent post on this blog, Simeon Floyd takes exception with my characterization of his 2011 Linguistic Typology paper as “asking a wrong question”. He emphasizes that the main point of his paper is to clarify what Quechua is like, not how to call the categories, and that in general it is not appropriate to accuse field workers (including field workers of the calibre of Marianne Mithun and Nicholas Evans) of universalism or even ethnocentrism, as I supposedly did in my 2012 paper on major word classes. Continue reading

Do field linguists really ask the “wrong questions”? A reply to Haspelmath (2012a)

In a recent paper on word classes, Haspelmath (2012a) takes field linguists to task for asking the “wrong questions,” like whether the major word classes are universal or present in a particular language. The problem with this claim is that the field linguists he cites are not asking these questions at all. While they may advocate a particular best analysis, they do not usually make either explicit or implicit universalists claims (the main exception being Chung 2012 who says that her analysis of Chamorro “supports the claim that lexical categories are universal” (p1)).

My Linguistic Typology paper on adjectives in Ecuadorian Quechua (Floyd 2011) is one of sources portrayed as universalist, despite clearly stating that it does not “not take a strong position here regarding the adjective’s universality” (p27) and that the term “adjective” in the article refers only to a “language-internal word class” (p39). Continue reading

Rethinking Ecolinguistic Diversity

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brian F. Codding and Terry L. Jones (2013) suggest that ecological productivity (how ecologically rich an environment is in terms of water, plant, and animal resources) predicts and partially explains the linguistic diversity of a given region. Many linguists have commented on the correlation between ecological and linguistic diversity, typically echoing works by Nettle & Romaine (2000), Romaine (2012, 2013), and Maffi (2001, 2003) on this topic. Indeed, looking at EndangeredLanguages.com, it’s easy to see that linguistic diversity is most densely concentrated in the most ecologically rich areas of the world, such as Papua New Guinea or central Africa. 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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Ejectives, Altitude, and the Caucasus as a Linguistic Area

The last several weeks has witnessed a flurry of excitement (and not a little criticism) over the publication of Caleb Everett’s work arguing for a correlation (and a couple of potential causal links) between ejective series of obstruents and altitude above sea-level.  Many of these reactions have been negative, faulting the work for inadequate sampling (here), lack of statistical significance (here), or more generally a failure to account for spurious correlations (here; most amusingly in Mark Liberman’s chart showing a correlation of English quantifiers and American real-estate listings (here)).

C. Everett’s ejectives/altitude correlation is not significant

I’ve now had a chance to take a closer look at Caleb Everett’s recent PLoS ONE article on the correlation between ejective consonants and altitude, and I think the ejective
distribution is explainable on purely classical grounds, that is,
common inheritance and areal diffusion. That is, it is NOT necessary to resort to
an explanation in terms of altitude. The classical explanation is preferable
since the mechanisms of inheritance and diffusion are observable in
plenty, whereas noone has yet observed the hypothesized mechanism whereby
the speakers start using more ejectives in response to moving to higher
altitudes. Continue reading

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

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

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

Panchronic semantics

In historical linguistics, it is obvious that the general principles of phonetic changes (which some, following Haudricourt, call ‘Panchronic Phonology’) are much better understood than those operating in morphology, and that historical morphology is generally better understood than historical syntax (a field which is however undergoing important developments in recent times with articles such as Eythorsson and Barðdal 2005).

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

Need and have

In a recent article, Harves & Kayne (2012: 120-121) proposed the following universal generalization:

(1) “All languages that have a transitive verb corresponding to need have an overt verb expressing predicative possession […] such that the possessor has nominative case and the possessee is a direct object (with accusative case and no preposition).”

The authors introduce the terms “H-languages” an “B-languages” for classifying languages as regards to their predicative possession constructions. H-languages have a transitive verb meaning ‘to have’ where the possessor is treated as the agent of the verb, while B-languages use a construction with a verb ‘to be, to exist’ and the agent is marked with oblique case. Continue reading