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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.
Holger Diessel and Martin Hilpert
Until recently, theoretical linguists have paid little attention to the frequency of linguistic elements in grammar and grammatical development. It is a standard assumption of (most) grammatical theories that the study of grammar (or competence) must be separated from the study of language use (or performance). However, this view of language has been called into question by various strands of research that have emphasized the importance of frequency for the analysis of linguistic structure. In this research, linguistic structure is often characterized as an emergent phenomenon shaped by general cognitive processes such as analogy, categorization, and automatization, which are crucially influenced by frequency of occurrence.
There are many different ways in which frequency affects the processing and development of linguistic structure. Historical linguists have shown that frequent strings of linguistic elements are prone to undergo phonetic reduction and coalescence, and that frequent expressions and constructions are more resistant to structure mapping and analogical leveling than infrequent ones. Cognitive linguists have argued that the organization of constituent structure and embedding is based on the language users’ experience with linguistic sequences, and that the productivity of grammatical schemas or rules is determined by the combined effect of frequency and similarity. Child language researchers have demonstrated that frequency of occurrence plays an important role in the segmentation of the speech stream and the acquisition of syntactic categories, and that the statistical properties of the ambient language are much more regular than commonly assumed. And finally, psycholinguists have shown that structural ambiguities in sentence processing can often be resolved by lexical and structural frequencies, and that speakers’ choices between alternative constructions in language production are related to their experience with particular linguistic forms and meanings. Taken together, this research suggests that our knowledge of grammar is grounded in experience.
Game theory provides formal means of representing and explaining action choices in social decision situations where the choices of one participant depend on the choices of another. Game theoretic pragmatics approaches language production and interpretation as a game in this sense. Patterns in language use are explained as optimal, rational, or at least nearly optimal or rational solutions to a communication problem. Three intimately related perspectives on game theoretic pragmatics are sketched here: (i) the evolutionary perspective explains language use as the outcome of some optimization process, (ii) the rationalistic perspective pictures language use as a form of rational decision-making, and (iii) the probabilistic reasoning perspective considers specifically speakers’ and listeners’ beliefs about each other. There are clear commonalities behind these three perspectives, and they may in practice blend into each other.
At the heart of game theoretic pragmatics lies the idea that speaker and listener behavior, when it comes to using a language with a given semantic meaning, are attuned to each other. By focusing on the evolutionary or rationalistic perspective, we can then give a functional account of general patterns in our pragmatic language use. The probabilistic reasoning perspective invites modeling actual speaker and listener behavior, for example, as it shows in quantitative aspects of experimental data.
Gender is a grammatical feature, in a family with person, number, and case. In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender. A typical example is Italian, which has masculine words for male persons (il bambino “the.
Across the languages of the world, gender systems vary widely. They differ in the number of classes, in the underlying assignment rules, and in how and where gender is marked. Since agreement is a definitional property, gender is generally absent in isolating languages as well as in young languages with little bound morphology, including sign languages. Therefore, gender is considered a mature phenomenon in language.
Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features. For example, it may be limited to the singular number or the third person, and it may be crosscut by case distinctions. These and other interrelations can complicate the task of figuring out a gender system in first or second language acquisition. Yet, children master gender early, making use of a broad variety of cues. By contrast, gender is famously difficult for second-language learners. This is especially true for adults and for learners whose first language does not have a gender system. Nevertheless, tests show that even for this group, native-like competence is possible to attain.
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).
The German sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) occupies an interesting place at the intersection of several streams of linguistic scholarship at the end of the 19th century. As Professor of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig from 1878 to 1889 and then Professor for Sinology and General Linguistics at the University of Berlin from 1889 until his death, Gabelentz was present at some of the main centers of linguistics at the time. He was, however, generally critical of mainstream historical-comparative linguistics as propagated by the neogrammarians, and instead emphasized approaches to language inspired by a line of researchers including Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), H. Steinthal (1823–1899), and his own father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874).
Today Gabelentz is chiefly remembered for several theoretical and methodological innovations which continue to play a role in linguistics. Most significant among these are his contributions to cross-linguistic syntactic comparison and typology, grammar-writing, and grammaticalization. His earliest linguistic work emphasized the importance of syntax as a core part of grammar and sought to establish a framework for the cross-linguistic description of word order, as had already been attempted for morphology by other scholars. The importance he attached to syntax was motivated by his engagement with Classical Chinese, a language almost devoid of morphology and highly reliant on syntax. In describing this language in his 1881 Chinesische Grammatik, Gabelentz elaborated and implemented the complementary “analytic” and “synthetic” systems of grammar, an approach to grammar-writing that continues to serve as a point of reference up to the present day. In his summary of contemporary thought on the nature of grammatical change in language, he became one of the first linguists to formulate the principles of grammaticalization in essentially the form that this phenomenon is studied today, although he did not use the current term. One key term of modern linguistics that he did employ, however, is “typology,” a term that he in fact coined. Gabelentz’s typology was a development on various contemporary strands of thought, including his own comparative syntax, and is widely acknowledged as a direct precursor of the present-day field.
Gabelentz is a significant transitional figure from the 19th to the 20th century. On the one hand, his work seems very modern. Beyond his contributions to grammaticalization avant la lettre and his christening of typology, his conception of language prefigures the structuralist revolution of the early 20th century in important respects. On the other hand, he continues to entertain several preoccupations of the 19th century—in particular the judgment of the relative value of different languages—which were progressively banished from linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century.
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).