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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.
Displacement is a ubiquitous phenomenon in natural languages. Grammarians often speak of displacement in cases where the rules for the canonical word order of a language lead to the expectation of finding a word or phrase in a particular position in the sentence whereas it surfaces instead in a different position and the canonical position remains empty: ‘Which book did you buy?’ is an example of displacement because the noun phrase ‘which book’, which acts as the grammatical object in the question, does not occur in the canonical object position, which in English is after the verb. Instead, it surfaces at the beginning of the sentence and the object position remains empty. Displacement is often used as a diagnostic for constituent structure because it affects only (but not all) constituents. In the clear cases, displaced constituents show properties associated with two distinct linear and hierarchical positions. Typically, one of these two positions c-commands the other and the displaced element is pronounced in the c-commanding position. Displacement also shows strong interactions with the path between the empty canonical position and the position where the element is pronounced: one often encounters morphological changes along this path and evidence for structural placement of the displaced constituent, as well as constraints on displacement induced by the path.
The exact scope of displacement as an analytically unified phenomenon varies from theory to theory. If more then one type of syntactic displacement is recognized, the question of the interaction between movement types arises. Displacement phenomena are extensively studied by syntacticians. Their enduring interest derives from the fact that the complex interactions between displacement and other aspects of syntax offer a powerful probe into the inner workings and architecture of the human syntactic faculty.
Jonathan David Bobaljik
Distributed Morphology (DM) is a framework in theoretical morphology, characterized by two core tenets: (i) that the internal hierarchical structure of words is, in the first instance, syntactic (complex words are derived syntactically), and (ii) that the syntax operates on abstract morphemes, defined in terms of morphosyntactic features, and that the spell-out (realization, exponence) of these abstract morphemes occurs after the syntax. Distributing the functions of the classical morpheme in this way allows for analysis of mismatches between the minimal units of grammatical combination and the minimal units of sound. Much work within the framework is nevertheless guided by seeking to understand restrictions on such mismatches, balancing the need for the detailed description of complex morphological data in individual languages against an attempt to explain broad patterns in terms of restrictions imposed by grammatical principles.
Chris Rogers and Lyle Campbell
The reduction of the world’s linguistic diversity has accelerated over the last century and correlates to a loss of knowledge, collective and individual identity, and social value. Often a language is pushed out of use before scholars and language communities have a chance to document or preserve this linguistic heritage. Many are concerned for this loss, believing it to be one of the most serious issues facing humanity today. To address the issues concomitant with an endangered language, we must know how to define “endangerment,” how different situations of endangerment can be compared, and how each language fits into the cultural practices of individuals. The discussion about endangered languages focuses on addressing the needs, causes, and consequences of this loss.
Concern over endangered languages is not just an academic catch phrase. It involves real people and communities struggling with real social, political, and economic issues. To understand the causes and consequence of language endangerment for these individuals and communities requires a multifaceted perspective on the place of each language in the lives of their users. The loss of a language affects not only the world’s linguistic diversity but also an individual’s social identity, and a community’s sense of itself and its history.
The Eskimo-Aleut language family consists of two quite different branches, Aleut and Eskimo. The latter consists of Yupik and Inuit languages. It is spoken from the eastern coast of Russia to Greenland. The family is thought to have developed and diverged in Alaska between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, although recent findings in a variety of fields suggest a more complex prehistory than previously assumed. The language family shares certain characteristics, including polysynthetic word formation, an originally ergative-absolutive case system (now substantially modified in Aleut), SOV word order, and more or less similar phonological systems across the language family, involving voiceless stop and voiced fricative consonant series often in alternation, and an originally four-vowel system frequently reduced to three. The languages in the family have undergone substantial postcolonial contact effects, especially evident in (although not restricted to) loanwords from the respective colonial languages. There is extensive language documentation for all languages, although not necessarily all dialects. Most languages and dialects are severely endangered today, with the exception of Eastern Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic (Kalaallisut). There are also theoretical studies of the languages in many linguistic fields, although the languages are unevenly covered, and there are still many more studies of the phonologies and syntaxes of the respective languages than other aspects of grammar.
Eva Buchi and Steven N. Dworkin
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
Within the field of linguistics, etymology is the only subdiscipline that is uniquely historical in its study of the relevant linguistic data. It is one of the oldest fields in Romance linguistics. The scholar credited with establishing Romance linguistics as a scholarly discipline, Friedrich Diez (1794–1876) authored both the first comparative Romance historical grammar (his three-volume Grammatik der Romanischen Sprachen [1836–1844]) and the first pan-Romance etymological dictionary (his Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Romanischen Sprachen ). A similar combination, illustrating the indissoluble link between etymology and historical grammar (especially the study of sound change), can be seen in the work of Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke (1861–1936), author of a four-volume Grammatik der Romanischen Sprachen (1890–1902) and of the last complete pan-Romance etymological dictionary, the Romanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (3d definitive edition, 1935).
The concept of etymology as practiced by Romanists has changed over the last 100 years. At the outset, Romance etymologists took as their brief the search for and identification of individual word origins. Starting in the early 20th century, various specialists began to view etymology as the preparation of the complete history of all facets of the evolution over time and space of the words or lexical families under study. Identification of the underlying base was only the first step in the process. From this perspective, etymology constitutes an essential element of diachronic lexicology, which covers all formal, semantic, and syntactic facets of a word’s evolution, including, if appropriate, the circumstances leading to its demise and replacement.
Practitioners of Romance etymology tend to study the history of individual words or word families in specific Romance languages rather than across the entire family. Almost every Romance language and many of their regional varieties have at least one etymological dictionary devoted to the history of its vocabulary (or at least to the identification of relevant word origins), the most notable being such multi-volumed works as the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1922–2002), the Lessico Etimilogico Italiano (1979–), the Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico (1980–1991), and the Diccionari etimològic i complimenari de la llengua catalana (1980–2001). The last complete pan-Romance dictionary remains the afore-cited third edition of Meyer-Lübke’s Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch.
Although originally coined as a riposte to the Neogrammarian view of sound change, Jules Gilliéron’s (1854–1926) dictum, “each word has its own history,” applies equally well to etymology. Yakov Malkiel (1914–1998), one of the leading writers on questions of method and practice in Romance etymology, has discussed the unique and complex nature of etymological solutions. As a result of the emphasis on individual problems and solutions, Romance etymology has not lent itself to the formulation of theories on the nature of lexical change, although there was in the past no shortage of literature on questions of methodology.
Although specialists continue to work on language-specific etymological questions, etymology is not currently at the forefront of work in Romance historical linguistics, a situation that may result, in part, from its lack of engagement with broad theoretical issues. Most studies still appear in the form of journal articles or Festschrift contributions. There is currently underway a new pan-Romance project, the Dictionnaire étymologique Roman (DéRom), with a new (and controversial) methodological underpinning, namely the rigorous application to the Romance data of comparative reconstruction to capture more accurately the phonological and morphological reality of proto-Romance (in essence a register of spoken Latin) and the semantic scope of the etymological base. This project has reawakened an interest in Romance etymology among a new generation of Romanists. Indeed, to remain vital and relevant within the framework of Romance linguistics, etymology must go beyond the details of individual lexical histories and make an effort to link its findings to our understanding of the nature and processes of language change.
Evaluative morphology is a field of linguistic studies that deals with the formation of diminutives, augmentatives, pejoratives, and amelioratives. Actually, evaluative constructions cross the boundaries of morphology, and are sometimes realized by formal strategies that cannot be numbered among word formation processes. Nevertheless, morphology plays a dominant role in the formation of evaluatives. The first attempt to draw an exhaustive account of this set of complex forms is found in the 1984 work Generative Morphology, by Sergio Scalise, who made the hypothesis that evaluatives represent a separate block of rules between inflection and derivation. This hypothesis is based on the fact that evaluatives show some properties that are derivational, others that are inflectional, and some specific properties that are neither derivational nor inflectional. After Scalise’s proposal, almost all scholars have tried to answer the question concerning the place of evaluative rules within the morphological component. What data reveal is that, in a cross-linguistic perspective, evaluatives display a uniform behavior from a semantic and functional point of view, but exhibit a wide range of formal properties. In other words, functional identity does not imply formal identity; consequently, we can expect that constructions performing the same function display different formal properties in different languages. So, if evaluatives are undoubtedly derivational in most Indo-European languages (even if they cannot be considered a typical example of derivation), they are certainly quite close to inflection in some Bantu languages. This means that the question about the place of evaluatives within the morphological component probably is not as crucial as scholars have thought, and that other issues, sometimes neglected in the literature, deserve the same attention. Among them, the role of pragmatics in the description of evaluatives is no doubt central. According to Dressler and Merlini Barbaresi, in their 1994 work, Morphopragmatics: Diminutives and Intensifiers in Italian, German and Other Languages, evaluative constructions are the more typical instantiation of morphopragmatics, which is “defined as the area of general pragmatic meanings of morphological rules, that is of the regular pragmatic effects produced when moving from the input to the output of a morphological rule.” Evaluatives include “a pragmatic variable which cannot be suppressed in the description of [their] meaning.” Another central issue in studies on evaluative morphology is the wide set of semantic nuances that usually accompany diminutives, augmentatives, pejoratives, and amelioratives. For example, a diminutive form can occasionally assume a value that is attenuative, singulative, partitive, appreciative, affectionate, etc. This cluster of semantic values has often increased the idea that evaluatives are irregular in nature and that they irremediably avoid any generalization. Dan Jurafsky showed, in 1996, that these different meanings are often the outcome of regular and cross-linguistically recurrent semantic processes, both in a synchronic and in a diachronic perspective.
While both pragmatic theory and experimental investigations of language using psycholinguistic methods have been well-established subfields in the language sciences for a long time, the field of Experimental Pragmatics, where such methods are applied to pragmatic phenomena, has only fully taken shape since the early 2000s. By now, however, it has become a major and lively area of ongoing research, with dedicated conferences, workshops, and collaborative grant projects, bringing together researchers with linguistic, psychological, and computational approaches across disciplines. Its scope includes virtually all meaning-related phenomena in natural language comprehension and production, with a particular focus on what inferences utterances give rise to that go beyond what is literally expressed by the linguistic material.
One general area that has been explored in great depth consists of investigations of various ‘ingredients’ of meaning. A major aim has been to develop experimental methodologies to help classify various aspects of meaning, such as implicatures and presuppositions as compared to basic truth-conditional meaning, and to capture their properties more thoroughly using more extensive empirical data. The study of scalar implicatures (e.g., the inference that some but not all students left based on the sentence Some students left) has served as a catalyst of sorts in this area, and they constitute one of the most well-studied phenomena in Experimental Pragmatics to date. But much recent work has expanded the general approach to other aspects of meaning, including presuppositions and conventional implicatures, but also other aspects of nonliteral meaning, such as irony, metonymy, and metaphors.
The study of reference constitutes another core area of research in Experimental Pragmatics, and has a more extensive history of precursors in psycholinguistics proper. Reference resolution commonly requires drawing inferences beyond what is conventionally conveyed by the linguistic material at issue as well; the key concern is how comprehenders grasp the referential intentions of a speaker based on the referential expressions used in a given context, as well as how the speaker chooses an appropriate expression in the first place. Pronouns, demonstratives, and definite descriptions are crucial expressions of interest, with special attention to their relation to both intra- and extralinguistic context. Furthermore, one key line of research is concerned with speakers’ and listeners’ capacity to keep track of both their own private perspective and the shared perspective of the interlocutors in actual interaction.
Given the rapid ongoing growth in the field, there is a large number of additional topical areas that cannot all be mentioned here, but the final section of the article briefly mentions further current and future areas of research.
Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents.
ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created.
Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes.
The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly.
The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.
John E. Joseph
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the founding figure of modern linguistics, made his mark on the field with a book he published a month after his 21st birthday, in which he proposed a radical rethinking of the original system of vowels in Proto-Indo-European. A year later, he submitted his doctoral thesis on a morpho-syntactic topic, the genitive absolute in Sanskrit, to the University of Leipzig. He went to Paris intending to do a second, French doctorate, but instead he was given responsibility for courses on Gothic and Old High Gerrman at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and for managing the publications of the Société de Linguistique de Paris. He abandoned more than one large publication project of his own during the decade he spent in Paris. In 1891 he returned to his native Geneva, where the University created a chair in Sanskrit and the history and comparison of languages for him. He produced some significant work on Lithuanian during this period, connected to his early book on the Indo-European vowel system, and yielding Saussure’s Law, concerning the placement of stress in Lithuanian. He undertook writing projects about the general nature of language, but again abandoned them. In 1907, 1908–1909, and 1910–1911, he gave three courses in general linguistics at the University of Geneva, in which he developed an approach to languages as systems of signs, each sign consisting of a signifier (sound pattern) and a signified (concept), both of them mental rather than physical in nature, and conjoined arbitrarily and inseparably. The socially shared language system, or langue, makes possible the production and comprehension of parole, utterances, by individual speakers and hearers. Each signifier and signified is a value generated by its difference from all the other signifiers or signifieds with which it coexists on an associative (or paradigmatic) axis, and affected as well by its syntagmatic axis. Shortly after Saussure’s death at 55, two of his colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, gathered together students’ notes from the three courses, as well as manuscript notes by Saussure, and from them constructed the Cours de linguistique générale, published in 1916. Over the course of the next several decades, this book became the basis for the structuralist approach, initially within linguistics, and later adapted to other fields. Saussure left behind a large quantity of manuscript material that has gradually been published over the last few decades, and continues to be published, shedding new light on his thought.