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LINGUIST List 23.1394

Mon Mar 19 2012

Diss: General Ling/Typology: Sinnemäki: 'Language Universals and Linguistic Complexity : Three case studies in core argument marking'

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Date: 19-Mar-2012
From: Kaius Sinnemäki <sinnemakigmail.com>
Subject: Language Universals and Linguistic Complexity : Three case studies in core argument marking
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Institution: University of Helsinki
Program: Department of Modern Languages
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2011

Author: Kaius Sinnemäki

Dissertation Title: Language Universals and Linguistic Complexity : Three case studies in core argument marking

Dissertation URL: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-7259-8

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics

Dissertation Director:
Matti Miestamo
Fred Karlsson

Dissertation Abstract:

In this dissertation I study language complexity from a typological
perspective. Since the structuralist era, it has been assumed that local
complexity differences in languages are balanced out in cross-linguistic
comparisons and that complexity is not affected by the geopolitical or
sociocultural aspects of the speech community. However, these assumptions
have seldom been studied systematically from a typological point of view.

My objective is to define complexity so that it is possible to compare it
across languages and to approach its variation with the methods of
quantitative typology. My main empirical research questions are: i) does
language complexity vary in any systematic way in local domains, and ii)
can language complexity be affected by the geographical or social
environment? These questions are studied in three articles, whose findings
are summarized in the introduction to the dissertation.

In order to enable cross-language comparison, I measure complexity as the
description length of the regularities in an entity; I separate it from
difficulty, focus on local instead of global complexity, and break it up
into different types. This approach helps avoid the problems that plagued
earlier metrics of language complexity.

My approach to grammar is functional-typological in nature, and the
theoretical framework is basic linguistic theory. I delimit the empirical
research functionally to the marking of core arguments (the basic
participants in the sentence). I assess the distributions of complexity in
this domain with multifactorial statistical methods and use different
sampling strategies, implementing, for instance, the Greenbergian view of
universals as diachronic laws of type preference. My data come from large
and balanced samples (up to approximately 850 languages), drawn mainly from
reference grammars.

The results suggest that various significant trends occur in the marking of
core arguments in regard to complexity and that complexity in this domain
correlates with population size. These results provide evidence that
linguistic patterns interact among themselves in terms of complexity, that
language structure adapts to the social environment, and that there may be
cognitive mechanisms that limit complexity locally. My approach to
complexity and language universals can therefore be successfully applied to
empirical data and may serve as a model for further research in these areas.

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