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Review of  Linguistic Universals and Language Variation

Reviewer: Anish Koshy
Book Title: Linguistic Universals and Language Variation
Book Author: Peter Siemund
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.1776

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EDITOR: Peter Siemund
TITLE: Linguistic universals and language variation
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 231
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Anish Koshy, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, The English & Foreign
Languages University, Hyderabad, India.

The present volume consists of 13 contributions from 21 scholars plus an
introduction, organized in 4 major sections, namely, ‘Varieties and
cross-linguistic variation’ (4 papers), ‘Contact-induced variation’ (2 papers),
‘Methodological issues of variation research’ (3 papers), and, ‘Variation and
linguistic theory’ (4 papers).

The editor’s introductory note provides a sketch of the volume’s structure and
notes that most of the research projects reported here study both the limits and
origins of variation. They also address methodological issues apart from taking
up questions on reliability of data while making universalist claims from
variation studies. Several of the papers originate from a workshop on Linguistic
Universals and Language Variation (UniVar), held at the University of Hamburg’s
Research Centre on Multilingualism, July 2007.

Diessel and Hetterle argue that causal adverbial clauses, unlike temporal and
conditional clauses, are closer to coordinated structures as they are only
loosely connected to their main clauses. Adverbial clauses are seen to (a) use
the same verb forms and arguments like ordinary main clauses; (b) be placed
after the semantically associated clause, and (c) be commonly expressed by a
separated intonation unit in conversation. These three patterns are said to be
motivated 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. The
three major patterns are determined statistically. Semantic and pragmatic
features are analyzed through analysis of conversational discourse.

Loporcaro investigates two Euroversals, often considered independent of each
other, namely, the alternation between ‘be’ and ‘have’ in perfective
constructions, and the pattern of accusative alignment . It is argued that the
crucial choice between ‘be’ and ‘have’ is often dictated by the system of
alignment that a language makes use of, and hence, claims of an overall pattern
of accusative alignment for European languages cannot be maintained. Auxiliaries
become relevant to the system of alignment when seen as part of the
cross-referencing system of subjects/objects on verbs. It is observed that
perfect auxiliaries are not accusatively oriented and are rather part of an
active/inactive alignment.

Exploring parametric variation in languages with regard to allowing or
disallowing determiner-possessive combinations in possessive Noun Phrases (NPs),
Kupisch and Rinke investigate the diachronic development of possessive NPs in
modern Italian and Portuguese and argue that modern varieties are of the AG-type
even though 13th century varieties also exhibited bare possessives. The
parametric difference between AG (Adjective-Genitive) and DG
(Determiner-Genitive) languages is whether the possessive/genitive is treated as
an 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 and
Portuguese possessive Determiner Phrases (DP) from texts from the 13-19th
centuries shows a gradual process of the possessive NPs becoming strictly AG
type in the modern variants. A structural change leading to the
grammaticalization of the demonstrative and its subsequent reanalysis as a
definite article is considered a more crucial determining factor in a language
being AG or DG, than the categorical status of the possessive itself. That the
final shape of variation could be guided by structural changes in other related
domains is thus interestingly brought out.

Investigating variation in the default agreement pattern in the use of past
tense ‘be’ in thirteen different varieties of English, with ‘was’ representing
default agreement, Tagliamonte explores the universality of conditioning
constraints for agreement. The possibility of a hierarchical order in the
operation of these constraints, and the role of social and other factors
favouring or disfavouring certain constraints thereby also promoting or
inhibiting variants is also explored. In many varieties of English, in spite of
the subject being plural, the agreement on the be-verb is singular (default
agreement). A statistical analysis of the data finds that existential
constructions, 2nd singular ‘you’, Negation, and 3rd plural NP are often seen to
promote default agreement. Often explained in the literature as a regularization
process, the paper shows that default agreement is not a modern phenomenon and
has existed for centuries. That regularization is not a feature limited to
vernacular forms of languages is also brought out in the paper.

Contesting the view that contact does not always lead to reduction in the sense
of simplification, Enger explores the reduction in the gender system in
Scandinavian usually attributed to contact. Problematizing the simplistic view
of reduction due to contact, the paper argues for a system that works by
compensation -- the possibility that simplification in one domain may lead to or
may occur parallel to complexity in another. Looking at plural declensions, verb
inflections, lexical and referential gender, Enger claims that diachronic change
represents reduction of irregularities and that numerical increase does not
necessarily mean increased complexity. It is strongly argued that language
internal factors like sound laws need not work to the exclusion of language
external factors like contact, and that a purely “phonological account of the
loss of the feminine plural agreement” (194) does not suffice and that “contact
has mattered” (195).

Exploring whether certain categories are easier to borrow, and if so, what
semantic/pragmatic factors favour this ease, Matras understands contact as not
just a prolonged use of a pair of languages, but also as some degree of
bilingualism. While a review of literature on borrowing covers borrowing scales,
structural autonomy, semantic transparency, low paradigmaticity, etc. as some
possible factors, the paper postulates borrowing as the “removal of an invisible
demarcation line that separates subsets within the linguistic repertoire” (204).
Two large-scale samples exploring borrowing hierarchies suggest the independence
of meaning and structural autonomy as aiding factors. This is expanded to
include semantic gaps, overburdening due to parallel structures, factors of
prestige, speakers’ control over form-selection and the blurring of demarcations.

Contending that all linguistic theories must take into account functional and
social factors, Bisang argues that the requirements of reproducibility and
falsification cannot be met in variation studies due to the nature of the
contributing factors. With social factors like power, prestige and identity
determining linguistic choices, language cannot be a self-contained system.
Since speakers do not necessarily produce the same utterance every time and a
corpus never provides the full social background of the data, the two most
widely used methods of collecting data become irreproducible -- a combination of
text based research and elicitation may thus be more useful. That social and
functional factors are important even for typological generalizations is
underlined by the potential inaccessibility of relevant facts due to the
probability sampling requirements and due to non-inclusion of dialectal
varieties which may be at considerable structural variance to the standard variety.

Drawing up various parameters that influence morphosyntactic variation in World
Englishes, Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi attempt to explore through the notion of
Vernacular Universals, morphosyntactic features and strategies employed by
individual types of varieties in any language. Understood in the literature to
refer to phonological and grammatical processes recurring in vernaculars
wherever they are spoken, Vernacular Universals are not attributable to
sociolinguistic factors, and are considered unlearned and innate features of
vernacular dialects independent of their typological makeup or areal features.
Varieties of English are explored in terms of high and low contact between the
varieties; as different variety types like L1, indigenized non-native L2,
pidgins and creoles; as spoken and written varieties and also in terms of their
analyticity and syntheticity.

Taking language contact, dialect contact and multilingualism as causative
factors, Davydova et al. explore varieties of English to analyze recurrent
cross-dialectal grammatical patterns in domains like pronominal systems,
tense/aspect systems, and embedded questions. Many grammatical features like
subject-auxiliary inversion in embedded clauses, copula-drop etc., shared by
non-standard varieties of English in spite of no obvious historical contact, are
claimed to strengthen the arguments for vernacular universals and angloversals.
Comparison across varieties is proposed along three dimensions: typological
hierarchies revealing speakers’ access to ordered relations of cognitive
domains; proximity of a variety to some reference variety exploring substrate
influence or looking at contact-related origin scenario or imperfect L2
acquisition leading to simplification or overgeneralization, and; source/origin
of a non-standard grammatical phenomenon to see effects of contact.

Investigating variation across speakers, dialects, modes and genres, in the
placement of the finite verb in main clause declaratives in Norwegian,
considered a strict verb second (V2) language, Eide and Sollid look at each
individual speaker as a multilingual with multiple parallel
grammars/sub-grammars at command. Intra-individual variation is attributed to a
number of simultaneously internalized grammars. If the same language has
multiple internalized grammars, then the validity of grammaticality judgments
would be compromised, unless multiple systems that co-exist are not allowed to
interact and contaminate each other. Corpus studies reveal that some V3
structures 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 minimalist
approach, Mensching and Remberger propose that variation must be handled via a
system of parameters defined by the feature composition of functional
categories, along with lexical items stored in the mental lexicon. With a
powerful lexicon, distinction of two or more varieties of the same language
spoken by an individual is reduced to as many different lexicons, with the only
issue left for analysis being which kind of differences demand postulating
separate lexicons. Aspects of the Minimalist program with special relevance to
syntactic variation studies as well as the state of the art in comparative
Romance syntax form part of the discussions. Parameterization at the level of
the 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 be
understood against a starting point of potential individual language variation,
Joseph advocates a localistic approach to the study of universals and variation
with the speaker at the centre, who always favours/prefers local solutions or
small-scale generalizations. Ascribing a larger role to functional and cognitive
factors, variation is seen as a result of incomplete generalizations by the
speakers, and universals as a result of speakers reacting to the same “sorts of
stimuli” and coming at those stimuli “with similar cognitive preferences” (404)
as seen in the preference for symmetry/patterns and filling of gaps. While
variation has often been granted a functional basis, the paper makes an
important claim by arguing that even universals are rooted in the human act of
using 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 to
syntax, morphology and the lexicon, Hinskens evaluates both rule-based and
usage-based approaches to variation. While usage-based models give particular
importance to large scale storing of information in the lexicon as speakers
encounter the information and see language structure as emerging from language
use, rule-based approaches postulate innate abilities to generalize and
categorize, conceptualizing the lexicon as a list of exceptions (after
Bloomfield). Usage-based models see the lexicon rather as a “network of
prototype-wise organized words, phrases and constructions” (438). Variation and
change are accounted for in terms of distributional and usage frequencies.
Presenting a quantitative case study of reduction and deletion of unstressed
vowels 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 be
rule-based or dependent on the structure of the language and hence cannot be
derived from underlying full-forms, thus underlying the role of frequency of

The volume highlights ongoing research and its importance in drawing/exploring
the relationship between linguistic universals and language variation, a timely
topic with wide implications. Both the functionalist-inductive (language
typology) and the formalist-deductive (Generative grammar) approaches
representing the two major strands of research in language universals get a fair
representation in the volume; as also do all the stakeholders in variation
research: typologists, sociolinguists and dialectologists, as well as those
involved in issues of language contact, language acquisition and language
change. The book comes out as a fairly successful one in what it had set out to
achieve in terms of bridging the “rather artificial theoretical divide” (5)
between the formal and functionalist approaches. And thus, the volume would be
of interest to both practitioners of formal and functional linguistics.

Most studies reported here are empirical, and this explains the statistical
nature of many of the conclusions reached. Universals as tendencies, established
statistically as implicational and non-implicational universals (applicable also
to Vernacular Universals), is a common thread in the volume. Statistical tools
lead to postulation of implicational hierarchies, an indication of how best to
understand claims about both universals of language and variation. A majority of
papers in the volume stress that facts about language can at best only be
tendencies, not absolute laws.

An important thread running through the papers is a focus on dialectal and
vernacular variants of standard languages. These papers not only bring out their
significant features but also question the rationale and validity of typological
and other universal generalizations which ignore their distinctiveness and
assume that valid statements on the universal properties of language can be made
without taking them into consideration. Loporcaro’s disagreement with those who
claim European languages exhibit routinely similar patterns, brings to focus the
need for larger studies taking serious note of dialectal variations. Bisang
problematizes sampling requirements and the non-inclusion of dialectal variants
in investigations, leading to the potential ignoring of certain important
typological generalizations. Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi also criticize typologists
and sociolinguists for having completely ignored vernacular varieties of most
standard European languages as well as pidgins and creoles. This has amounted to
giving 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 to
understanding variation and universals drawing on the best that functional and
formal approaches have to offer. The integration of approaches leads to superior
explanations 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 on
grammatical matters and generative approaches for glossing over variation in
smaller varieties. Eide and Sollid opt to explain variation using an integrated
approach that leaves space for both generative (P&P approach) and
sociolinguistic (accommodation theory) perspectives, whereby the speaker is said
to have a choice and depending on the social context of use chooses the
appropriate form. Joseph also places the speaker at the centre of variation and
universals research by claiming that universals are products of what speakers do
with their languages. In fact, Mensching and Remberger’s theory-driven paper
stands alone as an exception to the integrated approach advocated by many.

Variation is approached from various perspectives in the papers. The diachronic
perspective is brought out by Kupisch and Rinke, underlining how variation
characterized languages in their older stages as much as they do in their
current forms. Davydova et al. emphasize that varieties are not random in their
structural forms, and hence require detailed in-depth studies including
unearthing historically relevant details from even seemingly similar structures
in different varieties.

The question of what leads to variation has been approached in most papers, not
in an either … or manner with respect to language internal (structural) and
external (socio-historical) factors, but rather as an end-result of both these
factors playing out their respective roles leading to variation in patterns that
finally shape universal patterns. Tagliamonte highlights this with multilayered
constraints which sometimes work in cross-purposes. Enger highlights this using
a highly recessive system like gender problematizing the common understanding of
simplification in grammars in terms of numerical increase/reduction. Hinskens
underlines the importance of usage-based approaches to variation especially when
variation is not determined by the structure of the language. Bisang argues that
exact reproducibility and hence falsifiability may not be possible in a
methodology that combines the two factors, even though he still finds it a
useful premise to prevent premature conclusions while evaluating linguistic
generalizations. Bisang elevates social-functional factors as being crucial not
only at the level of language but also for typological generalizations.

Borrowing, a prime factor in variation, is also approached from fresh
perspectives. Borrowing hierarchies are posited more as trends than absolute
laws. Matras links borrowing to the multilayered repertoire of linguistic
structures of speakers, thereby making it contingent on pressures of interaction
contexts, factors of accommodation and motivation of bilingual speakers.

If one has to labour to point out a drawback of the volume even though a minor
one, 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, in
spite of the almost axiomatic assumption in variation and universal studies
today that conclusions about crosslinguistic variation must be built on careful
samples. For a volume claiming on the back cover to be correlating linguistic
variation of different kinds (cross-linguistic, regional, diachronic,
contact-induced and socially-conditioned), in its attempt to highlight universal
patterns underlining surface variations, it is indeed surprising to see that
many papers make claims regarding variation with implications for universals,
based solely on languages from a particular stock, reminiscent of the days when
generative linguists worked on the assumption of unraveling universal tendencies
among languages based on in-depth study of a single language as representing a
token instantiation of Universal Grammar. Diessel and Hetterle’s and Matras’
papers are exceptions to the above. That the volume follows from a Workshop in
Hamburg, might have dictated the shape the volume has finally taken and the
languages that have been represented. The title of the volume could have had a
sub-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 research
findings and not mere speculations of theory make it a worth-while collection.
That many of the beholden principles and received wisdom of issues related to
variation get questioned is a positive direction for language universal and
variation studies, which have often been crippled by an unquestioned adherence
to theoretical baggage.

Most work on language universals or variation is driven by theoretical
persuasion. So while most works on variation take a sociolinguistic perspective,
universals are largely dealt with by either typologists or generative linguists
who have often approached the subject as though there could be no meeting
ground. Much emphasis here is on integrated approaches, bringing the best of the
formalist and functional approaches together for better explanations, making it
a timely publication in linguistics where much time has been wasted in being
more loyal camp followers than in being critically appreciative of divergent
views and explanations. The book holds much promise in the shaping of future
research methodologies and research goals.

Anish Koshy is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, The English & Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. His research interests lie in the lesser-studied languages of India and South Asian languages from a typological perspective. He is currently working on the typological nature of clitics in the Austroasiatic languages of India, namely the Munda and the Khasian branches.