Dispersion Theory concerns the constraints that govern contrasts, the phonetic differences that can distinguish words in a language. Specifically it posits that there are distinctiveness constraints that favor contrasts that are more perceptually distinct over less distinct contrasts. The preference for distinct contrasts is hypothesized to follow from a preference to minimize perceptual confusion: In order to recover what a speaker is saying, a listener must identify the words in the utterance. The more confusable words are, the more likely a listener is to make errors. Because contrasts are the minimal permissible differences between words in a language, banning indistinct contrasts reduces the likelihood of misperception.
The term ‘dispersion’ refers to the separation of sounds in perceptual space that results from maximizing the perceptual distinctiveness of the contrasts between those sounds, and is adopted from Lindblom’s Theory of Adaptive Dispersion, a theory of phoneme inventories according to which inventories are selected so as to maximize the perceptual differences between phonemes. These proposals follow a long tradition of explaining cross-linguistic tendencies in the phonetic and phonological form of languages in terms of a preference for perceptually distinct contrasts.
Flemming proposes that distinctiveness constraints constitute one class of constraints in an Optimality Theoretic model of phonology. In this context, distinctiveness constraints predict several basic phenomena, the first of which is the preference for maximal dispersion in inventories of contrasting sounds that first motivated the development of the Theory of Adaptive Dispersion. But distinctiveness constraints are formulated as constraints on the surface forms of possible words that interact with other phonological constraints, so they evaluate the distinctiveness of contrasts in context. As a result, Dispersion Theory predicts that contrasts can be neutralized or enhanced in particular phonological contexts. This prediction arises because the phonetic realization of sounds depends on their context, so the perceptual differences between contrasting sounds also depend on context. If the realization of a contrast in a particular context would be insufficiently distinct (i.e., it would violate a high-ranked distinctiveness constraint), there are two options: the offending contrast can be neutralized, or it can be modified (‘enhanced’) to make it more distinct.
A basic open question regarding Dispersion Theory concerns the proper formulation of distinctiveness constraints and the extent of variation in their rankings across languages, issues that are tied up with the questions about the nature of perceptual distinctiveness. Another concerns the size and nature of the comparison set of contrasting word-forms required to be able to evaluate whether a candidate output satisfies distinctiveness constraints.
Linguistic change not only affects the lexicon and the phonology of words, it also operates on the grammar of a language. In this context, grammaticalization is concerned with the development of lexical items into markers of grammatical categories or, more generally, with the development of markers used for procedural cueing of abstract relationships out of linguistic items with concrete referential meaning. A well-known example is the English verb go in its function of a future marker, as in She is going to visit her friend. Phenomena like these are very frequent across the world’s languages and across many different domains of grammatical categories. In the last 50 years, research on grammaticalization has come up with a plethora of (a) generalizations, (b) models of how grammaticalization works, and (c) methodological refinements.
On (a): Processes of grammaticalization develop gradually, step by step, and the sequence of the individual stages follows certain clines as they have been generalized from cross-linguistic comparison (unidirectionality). Even though there are counterexamples that go against the directionality of various clines, their number seems smaller than assumed in the late 1990s.
On (b): Models or scenarios of grammaticalization integrate various factors. Depending on the theoretical background, grammaticalization and its results are motivated either by the competing motivations of economy vs. iconicity/explicitness in functional typology or by a change from movement to merger in the minimalist program. Pragmatic inference is of central importance for initiating processes of grammaticalization (and maybe also at later stages), and it activates mechanisms like reanalysis and analogy, whose status is controversial in the literature. Finally, grammaticalization does not only work within individual languages/varieties, it also operates across languages. In situations of contact, the existence of a certain grammatical category may induce grammaticalization in another language.
On (c): Even though it is hard to measure degrees of grammaticalization in terms of absolute and exact figures, it is possible to determine relative degrees of grammaticalization in terms of the autonomy of linguistic signs. Moreover, more recent research has come up with criteria for distinguishing grammaticalization and lexicalization (defined as the loss of productivity, transparency, and/or compositionality of former productive, transparent, and compositional structures).
In spite of these findings, there are still quite a number of questions that need further research. Two questions to be discussed address basic issues concerning the overall properties of grammaticalization. (1) What is the relation between constructions and grammaticalization? In the more traditional view, constructions are seen as the syntactic framework within which linguistic items are grammaticalized. In more recent approaches based on construction grammar, constructions are defined as combinations of form and meaning. Thus, grammaticalization can be seen in the light of constructionalization, i.e., the creation of new combinations of form and meaning. Even though constructionalization covers many apects of grammaticalization, it does not exhaustively cover the domain of grammaticalization. (2) Is grammaticalization cross-linguistically homogeneous, or is there a certain range of variation? There is evidence from East and mainland Southeast Asia that there is cross-linguistic variation to some extent.
David R. Mortensen
Hmong-Mien (also known as Miao-Yao) is a bipartite family of minority languages spoken primarily in China and mainland Southeast Asia. The two branches, called Hmongic and Mienic by most Western linguists and Miao and Yao by Chinese linguists, are both compact groups (phylogenetically if not geographically). Although they are uncontroversially distinct from one another, they bear a strong mutual affinity. But while their internal relationships are reasonably well established, there is no unanimity regarding their wider genetic affiliations, with many Chinese scholars insisting on Hmong-Mien membership in the Sino-Tibetan superfamily, some Western scholars suggesting a relationship to Austronesian and/or Tai-Kradai, and still others suggesting a relationship to Mon-Khmer. A plurality view appears to be that Hmong-Mien bears no special relationship to any surviving language family.
Hmong-Mien languages are typical—in many respects—of the non-Sino-Tibetan languages of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. However, they possess a number of properties that make them stand out. Many neighboring languages are tonal, but Hmong-Mien languages are, on average, more so (in terms of the number of tones). While some other languages in the area have small-to-medium consonant inventories, Hmong-Mien languages (and especially Hmongic languages) often have very large consonant inventories with rare classes of sounds like uvulars and voiceless sonorants. Furthermore, while many of their neighbors are morphologically isolating, few language groups display as little affixation as Hmong-Mien languages. They are largely head-initial, but they deviate from this generalization in their genitive-noun constructions and their relative clauses (which vary in position and structure, sometimes even within the same language).
Young-mee Yu Cho
Due to a number of unusual and interesting properties, Korean phonetics and phonology have been generating productive discussion within modern linguistic theories, starting from structuralism, moving to classical generative grammar, and more recently to post-generative frameworks of Autosegmental Theory, Government Phonology, Optimality Theory, and others. In addition, it has been discovered that a description of important issues of phonology cannot be properly made without referring to the interface between phonetics and phonology on the one hand, and phonology and morpho-syntax on the other. Some phonological issues from Standard Korean are still under debate and will likely be of value in helping to elucidate universal phonological properties with regard to phonation contrast, vowel and consonant inventories, consonantal markedness, and the motivation for prosodic organization in the lexicon.
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.
Phonological learnability deals with the formal properties of phonological languages and grammars, which are combined with algorithms that attempt to learn the language-specific aspects of those grammars. The classical learning task can be outlined as follows: Beginning at a predetermined initial state, the learner is exposed to positive evidence of legal strings and structures from the target language, and its goal is to reach a predetermined end state, where the grammar will produce or accept all and only the target language’s strings and structures. In addition, a phonological learner must also acquire a set of language-specific representations for morphemes, words and so on—and in many cases, the grammar and the representations must be acquired at the same time.
Phonological learnability research seeks to determine how the architecture of the grammar, and the workings of an associated learning algorithm, influence success in completing this learning task, i.e., in reaching the end-state grammar. One basic question is about convergence: Is the learning algorithm guaranteed to converge on an end-state grammar, or will it never stabilize? Is there a class of initial states, or a kind of learning data (evidence), which can prevent a learner from converging? Next is the question of success: Assuming the algorithm will reach an end state, will it match the target? In particular, will the learner ever acquire a grammar that deems grammatical a superset of the target language’s legal outputs? How can the learner avoid such superset end-state traps? Are learning biases advantageous or even crucial to success?
In assessing phonological learnability, the analysist also has many differences between potential learning algorithms to consider. At the core of any algorithm is its update rule, meaning its method(s) of changing the current grammar on the basis of evidence. Other key aspects of an algorithm include how it is triggered to learn, how it processes and/or stores the errors that it makes, and how it responds to noise or variability in the learning data. Ultimately, the choice of algorithm is also tied to the type of phonological grammar being learned, i.e., whether the generalizations being learned are couched within rules, features, parameters, constraints, rankings, and/or weightings.
Nora C. England
Mayan languages are spoken by over 5 million people in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. There are around 30 different languages today, ranging in size from fairly large (about a million speakers) to very small (fewer than 30 speakers). All Mayan languages are endangered given that at least some children in some communities are not learning the language, and two languages have disappeared since European contact. Mayas developed the most elaborated and most widely attested writing system in the Americas (starting about 300 BC).
The sounds of Mayan languages consist of a voiceless stop and affricate series with corresponding glottalized stops (either implosive and ejective) and affricates, glottal stop, voiceless fricatives (including h in some of them inherited from Proto-Maya), two to three nasals, three to four approximants, and a five vowel system with contrasting vowel length (or tense/lax distinctions) in most languages. Several languages have developed contrastive tone.
The major word classes in Mayan languages include nouns, verbs, adjectives, positionals, and affect words. The difference between transitive verbs and intransitive verbs is rigidly maintained in most languages. They usually use the same aspect markers (but not always). Intransitive verbs only indicate their subjects while transitive verbs indicate both subjects and objects. Some languages have a set of status suffixes which is different for the two classes. Positionals are a root class whose most characteristic word form is a non-verbal predicate. Affect words indicate impressions of sounds, movements, and activities. Nouns have a number of different subclasses defined on the basis of characteristics when possessed, or the structure of compounds. Adjectives are formed from a small class of roots (under 50) and many derived forms from verbs and positionals.
Predicate types are transitive, intransitive, and non-verbal. Non-verbal predicates are based on nouns, adjectives, positionals, numbers, demonstratives, and existential and locative particles. They are distinct from verbs in that they do not take the usual verbal aspect markers. Mayan languages are head marking and verb initial; most have VOA flexible order but some have VAO rigid order. They are morphologically ergative and also have at least some rules that show syntactic ergativity. The most common of these is a constraint on the extraction of subjects of transitive verbs (ergative) for focus and/or interrogation, negation, or relativization. In addition, some languages make a distinction between agentive and non-agentive intransitive verbs. Some also can be shown to use obviation and inverse as important organizing principles. Voice categories include passive, antipassive and agent focus, and an applicative with several different functions.
Matthew K. Gordon
Metrical structure refers to the phonological representations capturing the prominence relationships between syllables, usually manifested phonetically as differences in levels of stress. There is considerable diversity in the range of stress systems found cross-linguistically, although attested patterns represent a small subset of those that are logically possible. Stress systems may be broadly divided into two groups, based on whether they are sensitive to the internal structure, or weight, of syllables or not, with further subdivisions based on the number of stresses per word and the location of those stresses. An ongoing debate in metrical stress theory concerns the role of constituency in characterizing stress patterns. Certain approaches capture stress directly in terms of a metrical grid in which more prominent syllables are associated with a greater number of grid marks than less prominent syllables. Others assume the foot as a constituent, where theories differ in the inventory of feet they assume. Support for foot-based theories of stress comes from segmental alternations that are explicable with reference to the foot but do not readily emerge in an apodal framework. Computational tools, increasingly, are being incorporated in the evaluation of phonological theories, including metrical stress theories. Computer-generated factorial typologies provide a rigorous means for determining the fit between the empirical coverage afforded by metrical theories and the typology of attested stress systems. Computational simulations also enable assessment of the learnability of metrical representations within different theories.
Howard Lasnik and Terje Lohndal
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
Noam Avram Chomsky is one of the central figures of modern linguistics. He was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928. In 1945, Chomsky enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Zellig Harris (1909–1992), a leading Structuralist, through their shared political interests. His first encounter with Harris’ work was when he proof-read Harris’ book Methods in Structural Linguistics, published in 1951 but already completed in 1947. Chomsky grew dissatisfied with Structuralism and started to develop his own major idea that syntax in part is a matter of abstract representations. This was soon combined with a psychobiological view of language as a unique part of the mind/brain.
Chomsky spent 1951–1955 as a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, after which he joined the faculty at MIT, under the sponsorship of Morris Halle. He was promoted to full professor of Foreign Languages and Linguistics in 1961, appointed Ferrari Ward Professor of Linguistics in 1966, and Institute Professor in 1976. As of 2016, Chomsky is still remarkably active, publishing, teaching, and lecturing across the world.
In 1967, both the University of Chicago and the University of London awarded him honorary degrees, and since then he has been the recipient of scores of honors and awards. In 1988, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in basic science, created in 1984 in order to recognize work in areas not included among the Nobel Prizes. These honors are all a testimony to Chomsky’s influence and impact in linguistics and cognitive science more generally over the past sixty years. His contributions have, of course, been heavily criticized, but nevertheless remain crucial to investigations of language.
Chomsky’s work has always centered on the same basic questions and assumptions, especially that human language is an inherent property of the human mind. The technical part of his research has continuously been revised and updated. In the 1960s phrase structure, grammars were developed into what is known as the Standard Theory, which transformed into the Extended Standard Theory and X-bar theory in the 1970s. A major transition happened at the end of the 1970s, when the Principles and Parameters Theory emerged. This theory provides a new understanding of the grammar, focusing on the invariant principles common to all human languages, and the points of variation known as parameters. Its recent variant, the Minimalist Program, pushes the approach even further in asking why grammars are structured the way they are.