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

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

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).

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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

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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Unusual borrowing patterns in Niger languages

Niger has about twelve indigenous languages, five major ones (Hausa, Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamajaq, and Kanuri) and seven minor ones (Arabic, Buduma, Gulmancema, Tadaksahak, Tagdal, Tasawaq, and Tubu). In Niger, Songhay is strongly differentiated into 3 major dialects, Kado Senni, Zarma Chiine, and Dandi. Tadaksahak, Tagdal, and Tasawaq are three mixed languages borrowing entire portions of their grammar and lexicon from Songhay and Berber languages (Benítez-Torres 2009, Sidibé 2010). Two important non-indigenous languages are French (the official language, inherited from colonization) and Standard Arabic.

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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