“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).