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Different methods exist for classifying languages, depending on whether the task is to work out the relations among languages already known to be related—internal language classification—or whether the task is to establish that certain languages are related—external language classification.
The comparative method in historical linguistics, developed during the latter part of the 19th century, represents one method for internal language classification; lexicostatistics, developed during the 1950s, represents another. Elements of lexicostatistics have been transformed and carried over into modern computational linguistic phylogenetics, and currently efforts are also being made to automate the comparative method. Recent years have seen rapid progress in the development of methods, tools, and resources for language classification. For instance, computational phylogenetic algorithms and software have made it possible to handle the classification of many languages using explicit models of language change, and data have been gathered for two thirds of the world’s language, allowing for rapid, exploratory classifications. There are also many open questions and venues for future research, for instance: What are the real-world counterparts to the nodes in a family tree structure? How can shortcomings in the traditional method of comparative historical linguistics be overcome? How can the understanding of the results that computational linguistic phylogenetics have to offer be improved?
External language classification, a notoriously difficult task, has also benefitted from the advent of computational power. While, in the past, the simultaneous comparison of many languages for the purpose of discovering deep genealogical links was carried out in a haphazard fashion, leaving too much room for the effect of chance similarities to kick in, this sort of activity can now be done in a systematic, objective way on an unprecedented scale. The ways of producing final, convincing evidence for a deep genealogical relation, however, have not changed much. There is some room for improvement in this area, but even more room for improvement in the way that proposals for long-distance relations are evaluated.
Knut Tarald Taraldsen
This article presents different types of generative grammar that can be used as models of natural languages focusing on a small subset of all the systems that have been devised. The central idea behind generative grammar may be rendered in the words of Richard Montague: “I reject the contention that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages” (“Universal Grammar,” Theoria, 36 , 373–398).
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
Although often considered primarily a philosopher of language, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was also directly engaged in the empirical study of diverse languages. His work inspired several strands of linguistic research that persisted—with varying degrees of faithfulness to his original ideas—into the first half of the 20th century. Humboldtian linguistics sought to provide an empirically grounded account of the human language faculty (das menschliche Sprachvermögen), while at the same time examining each language as an individual “organism.” This approach, with its tension between the universal and the particular, was embedded in an idealist philosophy that understood languages as both the product and the continual cultivator of the shared mentality of their speakers.
Research in the Humboldtian tradition was dominated by three main concerns: capturing and describing the individual character of languages, exploring and classifying the limits of language variation, and investigating the forces at work in the historical evolution of languages. These concerns were pursued in different ways by several scholars in subsequent generations who explicitly claimed Humboldt’s legacy, such as H. Steinthal (1823–1899), August Friedrich Pott (1802–1887), August Schleicher (1821–1868), Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893), Karl Vossler (1872–1949), and Leo Weisgerber (1899–1985). Many of the themes continue up to the present day, with greater or lesser influence from the Humboldtian tradition, in such fields as grammatical theory, language documentation, and linguistics typology.
D. Gary Miller
Apart from runic inscriptions, Gothic is the earliest attested language of the Germanic family, dating to the 4th century. Along with Crimean Gothic, it belongs to the branch known as East Germanic. The bulk of the extant Gothic corpus is a translation of the Bible, of which only a portion remains. The translation is traditionally ascribed to Wulfila, who is credited with inventing the Gothic alphabet. The many Greek conventions both help and hinder interpretation of the Gothic phonological system. As in Greek, letters of the alphabet functioned as numerals, but the late letter names were from runic.
Gothic inflectional categories include nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Nouns are inflected for three genders, two numbers, and four cases. Various stem types inherited from Indo-European constitute different form classes in Gothic. Adjectives have the same properties and are also inflected according to so-called weak and strong forms, as are Gothic verbs. Verbs are inflected for three persons and numbers, an indicative and a nonindicative mood (here called “optative”), past and nonpast tense, and voice. The mediopassive survives in Gothic morphologically as a synthetic passive and syntactically in innovated periphrastic formations; middle and anticausative functions were taken over by reflexive-type structures. Nonfinite forms are the infinitive, the imperative, and two participles.
In syntax, Gothic had null subjects as an option, mostly in the third person singular. Aspect was effected primarily by prefixes, which have many other functions, and aspect is not consistently indicated. Absolute constructions with a participle occurred in various cases with functional differences. Relativization was effected primarily by relative pronouns built on demonstratives plus a complementizer. Complementizers could be used with subordinate clause verbs in the indicative or optative. The switch to the optative was triggered by irrealis, matrix verbs that do not permit a full range of subordinate tenses, expression of a hope or wish, potentiality, and several other conditions. Many of these are also relevant to matrix clauses (independent optatives).
Essentials of linearization include prepositional phrases, default postposed genitives and possessive adjectives, and preposed demonstratives. Verb-object order predominates, but there is much Greek influence. Verb-auxiliary order is native Gothic.
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.
While in phonology Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) dialects preserved the phonological system of Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) virtually intact, their morphosyntax underwent far-reaching changes, which altered fundamentally the synthetic morphology of earlier Prākrits in the direction of the analytic typology of New Indo-Aryan (NIA). Speaking holistically, the “accusative alignment” of OIA (Vedic Sanskrit) was restructured as an “ergative alignment” in Western IA languages, and it is precisely during the Late MIA period (ca. 5th–12th centuries
(a) We shall start with the restructuring of the nominal case system in terms of the reduction of the number of cases from seven to four. This phonologically motivated process resulted ultimately in the rise of the binary distinction of the “absolutive” versus “oblique” case at the end of the MIA period). (b) The crucial role of animacy in the restructuring of the pronominal system and the rise of the “double-oblique” system in Ardha-Māgadhī and Western Apabhramśa will be explicated. (c) In the verbal system we witness complete remodeling of the aspectual system as a consequence of the loss of earlier synthetic forms expressing the perfective (Aorist) and “retrospective” (Perfect) aspect. Early Prākrits (Pāli) preserved their sigmatic Aorists (and the sigmatic Future) until late MIA centuries, while on the Iranian side the loss of the “sigmatic” aorist was accelerated in Middle Persian by the “weakening” of s > h > Ø. (d) The development and the establishment of “ergative alignment” at the end of the MIA period will be presented as a consequence of the above typological changes: the rise of the “absolutive” vs. “oblique” case system; the loss of the finite morphology of the perfective and retrospective aspect; and the recreation of the aspectual contrast of perfectivity by means of quasinominal (participial) forms. (e) Concurrently with the development toward the analyticity in grammatical aspect, we witness the evolution of lexical aspect (Aktionsart) ushering in the florescence of “serial” verbs in New Indo-Aryan.
On the whole, a contingency view of alignment considers the increase in ergativity as a by-product of the restoration of the OIA aspectual triad: Imperfective–Perfective–Perfect (in morphological terms Present–Aorist–Perfect). The NIA Perfective and Perfect are aligned ergatively, while their finite OIA ancestors (Aorist and Perfect) were aligned accusatively. Detailed linguistic analysis of Middle Indo-Aryan texts offers us a unique opportunity for a deeper comprehension of the formative period of the NIA state of affairs.
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).
Hokan is a linguistic stock or phylum based on a series of hypotheses about deeper genetic relationships among languages that extend geographically from Northern California to Nicaragua. Following the general effort to genetically link the vast number of Native American languages and to reduce them to a few superstocks, Dixon and Kroeber first proposed the Hokan stock in 1913, to include several California indigenous languages: Karuk, Chimariko, Shastan, Palaihnihan (Atsugewi and Achumawi), Pomoan, Yana, and later Esselen and Yuman. The name Hokan stems from the Atsugewi word for “two”: hoqi. While the first proposals by Dixon and Kroeber rested on very limited cognate sets comprising only five words, later assessments by Sapir included hundreds of putative cognate sets and analyses of Hokan morphosyntax. By 1925, Sapir further included Washo, Salinan, Seri, Chumashan, Tequistlatecan, and Subtiaba-Tlapanec as the Southern Hokan branch into the stock.
Throughout the 20th century, scholars sought additional evidence for the stock as more and refined data on the languages became available. A number of languages were added, and earlier proposals were abandoned. A new surge in work on individual California indigenous languages in the 1950s and 1960s prompted a string of studies conducting binary comparisons. This renewed interest inspired a series of Hokan conferences held until the 1990s. A more recent comprehensive assessment of the entire stock was undertaken by Kaufman in 1988. Applying rigorous analysis and only implicating those languages for which he encountered substantial evidence, Kaufman proposes sixteen classificatory units for Hokan clustered geographically. Kaufman’s Hokan stock also includes Coahuilteco and Comecrudan in Mexico and Jicaque in Nicaragua.
Although Hokan was widely studied in the 20th century, and many scholars presented what they thought to be supporting evidence, it is far from being an established genetic unit. In fact, many scholars today treat it with a lot of skepticism. One major challenge, as with any phylum-level affiliation, is its time depth. Proto-Hokan is thought to be at least as antique as Proto-Indo-European. Moreover, many of the languages were spoken in geographically contiguous areas, with speakers being multilingual and in close contact for an extended period of time, as is the case in Northern California. This suggests considerable language contact effects and complicates the distinction between true cognates and ancient borrowings. Many of the languages involved further show similarities in grammatical structure as a result of language contact.
Hokan languages stretch across California, Nevada, South Texas, various parts of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua and display notable structural differences. Phonologically, the languages show great variation including small and large phoneme inventories and different phonological processes. Typologically, they are equally diverse, but many are considered polysynthetic to varying degrees. Morphosyntactic and grammatical similarities are evident especially among languages spoken in Northern California. These resemblances include sets of lexical affixes with similar meanings and affinities in core argument patterns.
Interest in the linguistics of humor is widespread and dates since classical times. Several theoretical models have been proposed to describe and explain the function of humor in language. The most widely adopted one, the semantic-script theory of humor, was presented by Victor Raskin, in 1985. Its expansion, to incorporate a broader gamut of information, is known as the General Theory of Verbal Humor. Other approaches are emerging, especially in cognitive and corpus linguistics. Within applied linguistics, the predominant approach is analysis of conversation and discourse, with a focus on the disparate functions of humor in conversation. Speakers may use humor pro-socially, to build in-group solidarity, or anti-socially, to exclude and denigrate the targets of the humor. Most of the research has focused on how humor is co-constructed and used among friends, and how speakers support it. Increasingly, corpus-supported research is beginning to reshape the field, introducing quantitative concerns, as well as multimodal data and analyses. Overall, the linguistics of humor is a dynamic and rapidly changing field.
Noun incorporation (NI) is a grammatical construction where a nominal, usually bearing the semantic role of an object, has been incorporated into a verb to form a complex verb or predicate. Traditionally, incorporation was considered to be a word formation process, similar to compounding or cliticization. The fact that a syntactic entity (object) was entering into the lexical process of word formation was theoretically problematic, leading to many debates about the true nature of NI as a lexical or syntactic process. The analytic complexity of NI is compounded by the clear connections between NI and other processes such as possessor raising, applicatives, and classification systems and by its relation with case, agreement, and transitivity. In some cases, it was noted that no morpho-phonological incorporation is discernable beyond perhaps adjacency and a reduced left periphery for the noun. Such cases were termed pseudo noun incorporation, as they exhibit many properties of NI, minus any actual morpho-phonological incorporation. On the semantic side, it was noted that NI often correlates with a particular interpretation in which the noun is less referential and the predicate is more general. This led semanticists to group together all phenomena with similar semantics, whether or not they involve morpho-phonological incorporation. The role of cases of morpho-phonological NI that do not exhibit this characteristic semantics, i.e., where the incorporated nominal can be referential and the action is not general, remains a matter of debate. The interplay of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics that is found in NI, as well as its lexical overtones, has resulted in a wide range of analyses at all levels of the grammar. What all NI constructions share is that according to various diagnostics, a thematic element, usually correlating with an internal argument, functions to a lesser extent as an independent argument and instead acts as part of a predicate. In addition to cases of incorporation between verbs and internal arguments, there are also some cases of incorporation of subjects and adverbs, which remain less well understood.