LINGUIST List 7.687

Sun May 12 1996

Qs: Syntactic typology, E-mail in Yiddish, Etymology of streak

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  1. Frederick Newmeyer, Syntactic typology and syntactic change
  2. Tsuguya Sasaki, E-mail in languages using non-Roman characters
  3. Heather Cannon, etymology of "streak"

Message 1: Syntactic typology and syntactic change

Date: Fri, 10 May 1996 10:26:25 PDT
From: Frederick Newmeyer <>
Subject: Syntactic typology and syntactic change
This posting is meant both as a query and as a discussion piece. If
our goal is to explain why the languages of the world have the
typological distribution that they do (a goal shared by both
'structuralists' and 'functionalists'), we want to be reasonably sure
that the typological generalizations we take as the explananda are
real generalizations and not merely artifacts of sampling method or
some built-in, but dubious, assumption. As Matthew Dryer has shown in
several papers, to insure this is not so easy. He has shown that just
taking a 'random sample' of the world's languages will not give us the
right typological generalizations, due to the accidental fact of
history that some language families are much bigger than others. So, a
random sample of languages will give us about equal percentages of SVO
and SOV, with most of the remainder VSO. But as Dryer points out, 71%
of VSO languages are in one family (Austronesian) and 40% of SVO
languages are in one family (Niger-Congo). Correcting for this fact
(to the extent that it is possible to do so), SOV order is by far the
predominant one.

Dryer proposes a sampling method to correct for skewed sizes of
language families, which is not my purpose to discuss here. Rather, I
wish to point out that there is another potential way to test whether
typological generalizations are 'real'. Suppose that 70% of languages
have syntactic feature 'X' and 30% of languages have feature 'Y',
where not having X implies Y, and not having Y implies X. We want to
know if the 70%-30% split reflects something meaningful. Then, all
other things being equal, IN SYNTACTIC CHANGE, we should find X
arising somewhat more than twice as often as we find Y arising.

Does anybody know / has anything been written on whether such
predictions are borne out for attested (not reconstructed!) syntactic
changes in the world's languages for whatever typological feature? My
impression is that for basic word order change, the prediction fails
miserably. That is, it is my impression (am I right?) that there are
many more attested examples of SVO order arising than SOV order
arising. This despite the conclusion that there is something 'real'
(i.e. something to be explained) about a preference for SOV order.

The problem, of course, is that there are very few languages whose
development we can study for longer than a century, and they are
almost all in just a few language families. So, if attested SOV -> SVO
is more common than attested SVO -> SOV, that might merely be an
accidental consequence of what we have documented for us in the
historical record.

Would anybody care to comment on this general problem in a Linguist
List posting?

Fritz Newmeyer
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Message 2: E-mail in languages using non-Roman characters

Date: Sat, 11 May 1996 10:29:14 +0900
From: Tsuguya Sasaki <>
Subject: E-mail in languages using non-Roman characters
Dear linguists,

We, some Hebraishts-cum-Yiddishists in the cyberspace, are discussing
about and searching for the best way to send and receive e-mail in
Yiddish using Hebrew characters (including all diacritical marks 
specific to Yiddish). For the time being we are exchanging our
messages in Romanized Yiddish.

We are interested to know how other less-known languages which use 
non-Roman characters are struggling with the problem of sending and
receiving e-mail in their original characters. I should be grateful if
you would inform us of the state of the art in your language(s). I
will report about the answers here after a while.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Tsuguya Sasaki
Doctoral Student, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Research Fellow, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Kyoto =
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Message 3: etymology of "streak"

Date: Sat, 11 May 1996 12:10:02 MDT
From: Heather Cannon <>
Subject: etymology of "streak"

 I am trying to find the etymology of the phrase "to streak",
meaning to run naked. A prof here at Macalester College claims that
the phrase originated here, but I can't find any proof to back that up
- or to disprove it. The dictionaries I have checked don't even list
this as a meaning of "streak" so I guess it's slang, though certainly
in common usage -- especially here at Mac where it's a popular
pasttime. :)

Any help or leads would be very much appreciated.

Thank you.

Heather Cannon
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