LINGUIST List 23.1776
Thu Apr 05 2012
Review: Discipline of Linguistics; Sociolinguistics; Typology: Siemund (2011)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
Anish Koshy <anish
Linguistic universals and language variation
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EDITOR: Peter SiemundTITLE: Linguistic universals and language variationSERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 231PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011
Anish Koshy, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, The English & ForeignLanguages University, Hyderabad, India.
INTRODUCTIONThe present volume consists of 13 contributions from 21 scholars plus anintroduction, organized in 4 major sections, namely, 'Varieties andcross-linguistic variation' (4 papers), 'Contact-induced variation' (2 papers),'Methodological issues of variation research' (3 papers), and, 'Variation andlinguistic theory' (4 papers).
SUMMARYThe editor's introductory note provides a sketch of the volume's structure andnotes that most of the research projects reported here study both the limits andorigins of variation. They also address methodological issues apart from takingup questions on reliability of data while making universalist claims fromvariation studies. Several of the papers originate from a workshop on LinguisticUniversals and Language Variation (UniVar), held at the University of Hamburg'sResearch Centre on Multilingualism, July 2007.
Diessel and Hetterle argue that causal adverbial clauses, unlike temporal andconditional clauses, are closer to coordinated structures as they are onlyloosely connected to their main clauses. Adverbial clauses are seen to (a) usethe same verb forms and arguments like ordinary main clauses; (b) be placedafter the semantically associated clause, and (c) be commonly expressed by aseparated intonation unit in conversation. These three patterns are said to bemotivated by "their communicative function in speaker-hearer interactions",where "causal clauses are commonly used to support a problematic statement"(24), that is, to support interactional disagreement or misunderstanding. Thethree major patterns are determined statistically. Semantic and pragmaticfeatures are analyzed through analysis of conversational discourse.
Loporcaro investigates two Euroversals, often considered independent of eachother, namely, the alternation between 'be' and 'have' in perfectiveconstructions, and the pattern of accusative alignment . It is argued that thecrucial choice between 'be' and 'have' is often dictated by the system ofalignment that a language makes use of, and hence, claims of an overall patternof accusative alignment for European languages cannot be maintained. Auxiliariesbecome relevant to the system of alignment when seen as part of thecross-referencing system of subjects/objects on verbs. It is observed thatperfect auxiliaries are not accusatively oriented and are rather part of anactive/inactive alignment.
Exploring parametric variation in languages with regard to allowing ordisallowing determiner-possessive combinations in possessive Noun Phrases (NPs),Kupisch and Rinke investigate the diachronic development of possessive NPs inmodern Italian and Portuguese and argue that modern varieties are of the AG-typeeven though 13th century varieties also exhibited bare possessives. Theparametric difference between AG (Adjective-Genitive) and DG(Determiner-Genitive) languages is whether the possessive/genitive is treated asan adjective or as a determiner, the former allowing articles in such phrases,and the latter ruling them out. Statistical analysis of a corpus of Italian andPortuguese possessive Determiner Phrases (DP) from texts from the 13-19thcenturies shows a gradual process of the possessive NPs becoming strictly AGtype in the modern variants. A structural change leading to thegrammaticalization of the demonstrative and its subsequent reanalysis as adefinite article is considered a more crucial determining factor in a languagebeing AG or DG, than the categorical status of the possessive itself. That thefinal shape of variation could be guided by structural changes in other relateddomains is thus interestingly brought out.
Investigating variation in the default agreement pattern in the use of pasttense 'be' in thirteen different varieties of English, with 'was' representingdefault agreement, Tagliamonte explores the universality of conditioningconstraints for agreement. The possibility of a hierarchical order in theoperation of these constraints, and the role of social and other factorsfavouring or disfavouring certain constraints thereby also promoting orinhibiting variants is also explored. In many varieties of English, in spite ofthe subject being plural, the agreement on the be-verb is singular (defaultagreement). A statistical analysis of the data finds that existentialconstructions, 2nd singular 'you', Negation, and 3rd plural NP are often seen topromote default agreement. Often explained in the literature as a regularizationprocess, the paper shows that default agreement is not a modern phenomenon andhas existed for centuries. That regularization is not a feature limited tovernacular forms of languages is also brought out in the paper.
Contesting the view that contact does not always lead to reduction in the senseof simplification, Enger explores the reduction in the gender system inScandinavian usually attributed to contact. Problematizing the simplistic viewof reduction due to contact, the paper argues for a system that works bycompensation -- the possibility that simplification in one domain may lead to ormay occur parallel to complexity in another. Looking at plural declensions, verbinflections, lexical and referential gender, Enger claims that diachronic changerepresents reduction of irregularities and that numerical increase does notnecessarily mean increased complexity. It is strongly argued that languageinternal factors like sound laws need not work to the exclusion of languageexternal factors like contact, and that a purely "phonological account of theloss of the feminine plural agreement" (194) does not suffice and that "contacthas mattered" (195).
Exploring whether certain categories are easier to borrow, and if so, whatsemantic/pragmatic factors favour this ease, Matras understands contact as notjust a prolonged use of a pair of languages, but also as some degree ofbilingualism. While a review of literature on borrowing covers borrowing scales,structural autonomy, semantic transparency, low paradigmaticity, etc. as somepossible factors, the paper postulates borrowing as the "removal of an invisibledemarcation line that separates subsets within the linguistic repertoire" (204).Two large-scale samples exploring borrowing hierarchies suggest the independenceof meaning and structural autonomy as aiding factors. This is expanded toinclude semantic gaps, overburdening due to parallel structures, factors ofprestige, speakers' control over form-selection and the blurring of demarcations.
Contending that all linguistic theories must take into account functional andsocial factors, Bisang argues that the requirements of reproducibility andfalsification cannot be met in variation studies due to the nature of thecontributing factors. With social factors like power, prestige and identitydetermining linguistic choices, language cannot be a self-contained system.Since speakers do not necessarily produce the same utterance every time and acorpus never provides the full social background of the data, the two mostwidely used methods of collecting data become irreproducible -- a combination oftext based research and elicitation may thus be more useful. That social andfunctional factors are important even for typological generalizations isunderlined by the potential inaccessibility of relevant facts due to theprobability sampling requirements and due to non-inclusion of dialectalvarieties which may be at considerable structural variance to the standard variety.
Drawing up various parameters that influence morphosyntactic variation in WorldEnglishes, Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi attempt to explore through the notion ofVernacular Universals, morphosyntactic features and strategies employed byindividual types of varieties in any language. Understood in the literature torefer to phonological and grammatical processes recurring in vernacularswherever they are spoken, Vernacular Universals are not attributable tosociolinguistic factors, and are considered unlearned and innate features ofvernacular dialects independent of their typological makeup or areal features.Varieties of English are explored in terms of high and low contact between thevarieties; as different variety types like L1, indigenized non-native L2,pidgins and creoles; as spoken and written varieties and also in terms of theiranalyticity and syntheticity.
Taking language contact, dialect contact and multilingualism as causativefactors, Davydova et al. explore varieties of English to analyze recurrentcross-dialectal grammatical patterns in domains like pronominal systems,tense/aspect systems, and embedded questions. Many grammatical features likesubject-auxiliary inversion in embedded clauses, copula-drop etc., shared bynon-standard varieties of English in spite of no obvious historical contact, areclaimed to strengthen the arguments for vernacular universals and angloversals.Comparison across varieties is proposed along three dimensions: typologicalhierarchies revealing speakers' access to ordered relations of cognitivedomains; proximity of a variety to some reference variety exploring substrateinfluence or looking at contact-related origin scenario or imperfect L2acquisition leading to simplification or overgeneralization, and; source/originof a non-standard grammatical phenomenon to see effects of contact.
Investigating variation across speakers, dialects, modes and genres, in theplacement of the finite verb in main clause declaratives in Norwegian,considered a strict verb second (V2) language, Eide and Sollid look at eachindividual speaker as a multilingual with multiple parallelgrammars/sub-grammars at command. Intra-individual variation is attributed to anumber of simultaneously internalized grammars. If the same language hasmultiple internalized grammars, then the validity of grammaticality judgmentswould be compromised, unless multiple systems that co-exist are not allowed tointeract and contaminate each other. Corpus studies reveal that some V3structures are used by speakers to express in-group identity and solidarity,while most V1 and V2 and other V3 structures are explained in terms of verb-raising.
Approaching variation and change in Romance languages through the minimalistapproach, Mensching and Remberger propose that variation must be handled via asystem of parameters defined by the feature composition of functionalcategories, along with lexical items stored in the mental lexicon. With apowerful lexicon, distinction of two or more varieties of the same languagespoken by an individual is reduced to as many different lexicons, with the onlyissue left for analysis being which kind of differences demand postulatingseparate lexicons. Aspects of the Minimalist program with special relevance tosyntactic variation studies as well as the state of the art in comparativeRomance syntax form part of the discussions. Parameterization at the level ofthe lexicon for synchronic and diachronic variation is expressed in terms of EPP(Extended Projection Principle) features, ø - features (agreement features), HAF(Head-Attraction Feature), etc.
Stressing that universals of different degrees of particularity must always beunderstood against a starting point of potential individual language variation,Joseph advocates a localistic approach to the study of universals and variationwith the speaker at the centre, who always favours/prefers local solutions orsmall-scale generalizations. Ascribing a larger role to functional and cognitivefactors, variation is seen as a result of incomplete generalizations by thespeakers, and universals as a result of speakers reacting to the same "sorts ofstimuli" and coming at those stimuli "with similar cognitive preferences" (404)as seen in the preference for symmetry/patterns and filling of gaps. Whilevariation has often been granted a functional basis, the paper makes animportant claim by arguing that even universals are rooted in the human act ofusing language for interaction, making the role of innateness almost peripheral.The paper advocates a combination of the innateness and derivative approaches.
Investigating language variation with respect to sounds and its relation tosyntax, morphology and the lexicon, Hinskens evaluates both rule-based andusage-based approaches to variation. While usage-based models give particularimportance to large scale storing of information in the lexicon as speakersencounter the information and see language structure as emerging from languageuse, rule-based approaches postulate innate abilities to generalize andcategorize, conceptualizing the lexicon as a list of exceptions (afterBloomfield). Usage-based models see the lexicon rather as a "network ofprototype-wise organized words, phrases and constructions" (438). Variation andchange are accounted for in terms of distributional and usage frequencies.Presenting a quantitative case study of reduction and deletion of unstressedvowels in spoken modern standard Dutch and variable deletion of word-final /t/or /d/ in several Germanic languages, the paper claims that the latter cannot berule-based or dependent on the structure of the language and hence cannot bederived from underlying full-forms, thus underlying the role of frequency ofoccurrence/use.
EVALUATIONThe volume highlights ongoing research and its importance in drawing/exploringthe relationship between linguistic universals and language variation, a timelytopic with wide implications. Both the functionalist-inductive (languagetypology) and the formalist-deductive (Generative grammar) approachesrepresenting the two major strands of research in language universals get a fairrepresentation in the volume; as also do all the stakeholders in variationresearch: typologists, sociolinguists and dialectologists, as well as thoseinvolved in issues of language contact, language acquisition and languagechange. The book comes out as a fairly successful one in what it had set out toachieve in terms of bridging the "rather artificial theoretical divide" (5)between the formal and functionalist approaches. And thus, the volume would beof interest to both practitioners of formal and functional linguistics.
Most studies reported here are empirical, and this explains the statisticalnature of many of the conclusions reached. Universals as tendencies, establishedstatistically as implicational and non-implicational universals (applicable alsoto Vernacular Universals), is a common thread in the volume. Statistical toolslead to postulation of implicational hierarchies, an indication of how best tounderstand claims about both universals of language and variation. A majority ofpapers in the volume stress that facts about language can at best only betendencies, not absolute laws.
An important thread running through the papers is a focus on dialectal andvernacular variants of standard languages. These papers not only bring out theirsignificant features but also question the rationale and validity of typologicaland other universal generalizations which ignore their distinctiveness andassume that valid statements on the universal properties of language can be madewithout taking them into consideration. Loporcaro's disagreement with those whoclaim European languages exhibit routinely similar patterns, brings to focus theneed for larger studies taking serious note of dialectal variations. Bisangproblematizes sampling requirements and the non-inclusion of dialectal variantsin investigations, leading to the potential ignoring of certain importanttypological generalizations. Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi also criticize typologistsand sociolinguists for having completely ignored vernacular varieties of moststandard European languages as well as pidgins and creoles. This has amounted togiving no role to language contact in the shaping of universals in theories.Davydova et al. also take up this issue forcefully.
There is also a concerted effort to advocate for an integrated approach tounderstanding variation and universals drawing on the best that functional andformal approaches have to offer. The integration of approaches leads to superiorexplanations over those based on compartmentalized approaches. While doing so,many have also brought out the limitations that either approach suffers from.Loporcaro castigates functional approaches for their narrow perspectives ongrammatical matters and generative approaches for glossing over variation insmaller varieties. Eide and Sollid opt to explain variation using an integratedapproach that leaves space for both generative (P&P approach) andsociolinguistic (accommodation theory) perspectives, whereby the speaker is saidto have a choice and depending on the social context of use chooses theappropriate form. Joseph also places the speaker at the centre of variation anduniversals research by claiming that universals are products of what speakers dowith their languages. In fact, Mensching and Remberger's theory-driven paperstands alone as an exception to the integrated approach advocated by many.
Variation is approached from various perspectives in the papers. The diachronicperspective is brought out by Kupisch and Rinke, underlining how variationcharacterized languages in their older stages as much as they do in theircurrent forms. Davydova et al. emphasize that varieties are not random in theirstructural forms, and hence require detailed in-depth studies includingunearthing historically relevant details from even seemingly similar structuresin different varieties.
The question of what leads to variation has been approached in most papers, notin an either … or manner with respect to language internal (structural) andexternal (socio-historical) factors, but rather as an end-result of both thesefactors playing out their respective roles leading to variation in patterns thatfinally shape universal patterns. Tagliamonte highlights this with multilayeredconstraints which sometimes work in cross-purposes. Enger highlights this usinga highly recessive system like gender problematizing the common understanding ofsimplification in grammars in terms of numerical increase/reduction. Hinskensunderlines the importance of usage-based approaches to variation especially whenvariation is not determined by the structure of the language. Bisang argues thatexact reproducibility and hence falsifiability may not be possible in amethodology that combines the two factors, even though he still finds it auseful premise to prevent premature conclusions while evaluating linguisticgeneralizations. Bisang elevates social-functional factors as being crucial notonly at the level of language but also for typological generalizations.
Borrowing, a prime factor in variation, is also approached from freshperspectives. Borrowing hierarchies are posited more as trends than absolutelaws. Matras links borrowing to the multilayered repertoire of linguisticstructures of speakers, thereby making it contingent on pressures of interactioncontexts, factors of accommodation and motivation of bilingual speakers.
If one has to labour to point out a drawback of the volume even though a minorone, it has to be regarding the representation of languages and language groups.Methodologically, only a few papers are seen to make use of large database, inspite of the almost axiomatic assumption in variation and universal studiestoday that conclusions about crosslinguistic variation must be built on carefulsamples. For a volume claiming on the back cover to be correlating linguisticvariation of different kinds (cross-linguistic, regional, diachronic,contact-induced and socially-conditioned), in its attempt to highlight universalpatterns underlining surface variations, it is indeed surprising to see thatmany papers make claims regarding variation with implications for universals,based solely on languages from a particular stock, reminiscent of the days whengenerative linguists worked on the assumption of unraveling universal tendenciesamong languages based on in-depth study of a single language as representing atoken instantiation of Universal Grammar. Diessel and Hetterle's and Matras'papers are exceptions to the above. That the volume follows from a Workshop inHamburg, might have dictated the shape the volume has finally taken and thelanguages that have been represented. The title of the volume could have had asub-title making it more explicit than the grander one it has chosen to retain.This minor drawback aside, that most of the papers present original researchfindings and not mere speculations of theory make it a worth-while collection.That many of the beholden principles and received wisdom of issues related tovariation get questioned is a positive direction for language universal andvariation studies, which have often been crippled by an unquestioned adherenceto theoretical baggage.
Most work on language universals or variation is driven by theoreticalpersuasion. So while most works on variation take a sociolinguistic perspective,universals are largely dealt with by either typologists or generative linguistswho have often approached the subject as though there could be no meetingground. Much emphasis here is on integrated approaches, bringing the best of theformalist and functional approaches together for better explanations, making ita timely publication in linguistics where much time has been wasted in beingmore loyal camp followers than in being critically appreciative of divergentviews and explanations. The book holds much promise in the shaping of futureresearch methodologies and research goals.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERAnish Koshy is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics in the Department ofLinguistics & Phonetics, The English & Foreign Languages University,Hyderabad, India. His research interests lie in the lesser-studiedlanguages of India and South Asian languages from a typologicalperspective. He is currently working on the typological nature of cliticsin the Austroasiatic languages of India, namely the Munda and the Khasianbranches.
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