Creole languages have a curious status in linguistics, and at the same time they often have very low prestige in the societies in which they are spoken. These two facts may be related, in part because they circle around notions such as “derived from” or “simplified” instead of “original.” Rather than simply taking the notion of “creole” as a given and trying to account for its properties and origin, this essay tries to explore the ways scholars have dealt with creoles. This involves, in particular, trying to see whether we can define “creoles” as a meaningful class of languages. There is a canonical list of languages that most specialists would not hesitate to call creoles, but the boundaries of the list and the criteria for being listed are vague. It also becomes difficult to distinguish sharply between pidgins and creoles, and likewise the boundaries between some languages claimed to be creoles and their lexifiers are rather vague. Several possible criteria to distinguish creoles will be discussed. Simply defining them as languages of which we know the point of birth may be a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion. Displacement is also an important criterion, necessary but not sufficient. Mixture is often characteristic of creoles, but not crucial, it is argued. Essential in any case is substantial restructuring of some lexifier language, which may take the form of morphosyntactic simplification, but it is dangerous to assume that simplification always has the same outcome. The combination of these criteria—time of genesis, displacement, mixture, restructuring—contributes to the status of a language as creole, but “creole” is far from a unified notion. There turn out to be several types of creoles, and then a whole bunch of creole-like languages, and they differ in the way these criteria are combined with respect to them. Thus the proposal is made here to stop looking at creoles as a separate class, but take them as special cases of the general phenomenon that the way languages emerge and are used to a considerable extent determines their properties. This calls for a new, socially informed typology of languages, which will involve all kinds of different types of languages, including pidgins and creoles.
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The Eskimo-Aleut language family consists of two quite different branches, Aleut and Eskimo. The latter consists of Yupik and Inuit languages. It is spoken from the eastern coast of Russia to Greenland. The family is thought to have developed and diverged in Alaska between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, although recent findings in a variety of fields suggest a more complex prehistory than previously assumed. The language family shares certain characteristics, including polysynthetic word formation, an originally ergative-absolutive case system (now substantially modified in Aleut), SOV word order, and more or less similar phonological systems across the language family, involving voiceless stop and voiced fricative consonant series often in alternation, and an originally four-vowel system frequently reduced to three. The languages in the family have undergone substantial postcolonial contact effects, especially evident in (although not restricted to) loanwords from the respective colonial languages. There is extensive language documentation for all languages, although not necessarily all dialects. Most languages and dialects are severely endangered today, with the exception of Eastern Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic (Kalaallisut). There are also theoretical studies of the languages in many linguistic fields, although the languages are unevenly covered, and there are still many more studies of the phonologies and syntaxes of the respective languages than other aspects of grammar.
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.
Rosemary G. Beam de Azcona
Zapotecan languages belong to the Otomanguean stock and consist of two major subgroups: Zapotec and Chatino. They are primarily spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, and elsewhere in diaspora, particularly in California but also in other parts of the United States and Mexico. Zapotecan languages are spoken in a contiguous area and although all are related genetically, many languages exist in regional diffusion zones such that new changes spread areally. Similarly, individual Zapotecan “languages” often consist of dialect continua. Zapotecan languages are tonal and also have contrastive phonation types, such as a contrast between modal (V), checked (VɁ), and rearticulated (VɁV) vowels. Some Valley Zapotec languages also have breathy voice, partially due to contact with Mixe. Vowel nasalization is a prominent feature of Chatino and a marginal feature of some Zapotec languages. Consonants usually fall into two contrastive series in Zapotec, commonly termed “fortis” and “lenis,” though the phonetic realizations of these vary from language to language. The historical loss of unstressed vowels is common in many Zapotecan languages, though there are individual Zapotec and Chatino languages that retain them. A stress shift from the final syllable (retained in Chatino) to the first (usually penultimate) syllable of the root (in Zapotec) makes the languages with vowel loss more dissimilar from each other, since a different syllable survives in Chatino versus Zapotec. Zapotecan languages are head-initial languages with VSO order and are typically head-marking. Common morphology includes pre-posed TAM markers and post-posed person markers on the verb, and derivational prefixes on nouns. An emergent class of prepositions is developing out of what were historically relational nouns. Stative forms of verbs are more common than true adjectives, while numerals have many verbal properties. Like other Meso-American languages, Zapotecan languages are currently experiencing both a golden age and a moment of unprecedented peril. There is an ever-increasing number of linguists who are native speakers of these languages, and the community of language activists, including students and educators, is growing stronger in Oaxaca and Mexico at large, and indeed worldwide, including where Zapotecan languages are spoken by immigrants. At the same time, the intense political and socioeconomic pressure on communities to shift to Spanish is greater than ever before, and the number of communities where children speak Zapotecan languages is ever shrinking. Children in communities where children speak Zapotecan languages at home are often chastised for doing so in school, which poses a continual threat. Zapotecan languages historically have been in contact with other Meso-American languages such as Nahuatl, Mixtec, Chontal, Mixe, Huave and Chinantec, among others. Today the vast majority of speakers of Zapotecan languages are at least bilingual in their language and Spanish, and many also speak English and/or other Meso-American languages. Zapotecan languages mostly show lexical borrowings from these other languages, and occasional grammatical borrowings. Regional varieties of Spanish show a Zapotecan substrate with numerous calques and interference on every level of the language from phonetics to pragmatics.
Marie K. Huffman
Articulatory phonetics is concerned with the physical mechanisms involved in producing spoken language. A fundamental goal of articulatory phonetics is to relate linguistic representations to articulator movements in real time and the consequent acoustic output that makes speech a medium for information transfer. Understanding the overall process requires an appreciation of the aerodynamic conditions necessary for sound production and the way that the various parts of the chest, neck, and head are used to produce speech. One descriptive goal of articulatory phonetics is the efficient and consistent description of the key articulatory properties that distinguish sounds used contrastively in language. There is fairly strong consensus in the field about the inventory of terms needed to achieve this goal. Despite this common, segmental, perspective, speech production is essentially dynamic in nature. Much remains to be learned about how the articulators are coordinated for production of individual sounds and how they are coordinated to produce sounds in sequence. Cutting across all of these issues is the broader question of which aspects of speech production are due to properties of the physical mechanism and which are the result of the nature of linguistic representations. A diversity of approaches is used to try to tease apart the physical and the linguistic contributions to the articulatory fabric of speech sounds in the world’s languages. A variety of instrumental techniques are currently available, and improvement in safe methods of tracking articulators in real time promises to soon bring major advances in our understanding of how speech is produced.
Cedric Boeckx and Pedro Tiago Martins
All humans can acquire at least one natural language. Biolinguistics is the name given to the interdisciplinary enterprise that aims to unveil the biological bases of this unique capacity.
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.
“Altaic” is a common term applied by linguists to a number of language families, spread across Central Asia and the Far East and sharing a large, most likely non-coincidental, number of structural and morphemic similarities. At the onset of Altaic studies, these similarities were ascribed to the one-time existence of an ancestral language—“Proto-Altaic,” from which all these families are descended; circumstantial evidence and glottochronological calculations tentatively date this language to some time around the 6th–7th millennium bc, and suggest Southern Siberia or adjacent territories (hence the name “Altaic”) as the original homeland of its speakers. However, since the mid-20th century the dominant view in historical linguistics has shifted to that of an “Altaic Sprachbund” (diffusion area), implying that the families in question have not sprung from a common source, but rather have acquired their similarities over a long period of mutual linguistic contact. The bulk of “Altaic” has traditionally included such uncontroversial families as Turkic, Mongolic, and Manchu-Tungusic; additionally, Japanese (Japonic) and Korean are also frequently seen as potential members of the larger Altaic family (the entire five branches are sometimes referred to as “Macro-Altaic”). The debate over the nature of the relationship between the various units that constitute “Altaic,” sometimes referred to as “the Altaic controversy,” has been one of the most hotly debated topics in 20th-century historical linguistics and a major focal point of studies dealing with the prehistory of Central and East Eurasia. Supporters of “Proto-Altaic,” commonly known as “(pro-)Altaicists,” claim that only divergence from an original common ancestor can account for the observed regular phonetic correspondences and other structural similarities, whereas “anti-Altaicists,” without denying the existence of such similarities, insist that they do not belong to the “core” layers of the respective languages and are therefore better explained as results of lexical borrowing and other forms of areal linguistic contact. As a rule, “pro-Altaicists” claim that “Proto-Altaic” is as reconstructible by means of the classic comparative method as any uncontroversial linguistic family; in support of this view, they have produced several attempts to assemble large bodies of etymological evidence for the hypothesis, backed by systems of regular phonetic correspondences between compared languages. All of these, however, have been heavily criticized by “anti-Altaicists” for lack of methodological rigor, implausibility of proposed phonetic and/or semantic changes, and confusion of recent borrowings with items allegedly inherited from a common ancestor. Despite the validity of many of these objections, it remains unclear whether they are sufficient to completely discredit the hypothesis of a genetic connection between the various branches of “Altaic,” which continues to be actively supported by a small, but stable scholarly minority.
The Word and Paradigm approach to morphology associates lexemes with tables of surface forms for different morphosyntactic property sets. Researchers express their realizational theories, which show how to derive these surface forms, using formalisms such as Network Morphology and Paradigm Function Morphology. The tables of surface forms also lend themselves to a study of the implicative theories, which infer the realizations in some cells of the inflectional system from the realizations of other cells. There is an art to building realizational theories. First, the theories should be correct, that is, they should generate the right surface forms. Second, they should be elegant, which is much harder to capture, but includes the desiderata of simplicity and expressiveness. Without software to test a realizational theory, it is easy to sacrifice correctness for elegance. Therefore, software that takes a realizational theory and generates surface forms is an essential part of any theorist’s toolbox. Discovering implicative rules that connect the cells in an inflectional system is often quite difficult. Some rules are immediately apparent, but others can be subtle. Software that automatically analyzes an entire table of surface forms for many lexemes can help automate the discovery process. Researchers can use Web-based computerized tools to test their realizational theories and to discover implicative rules.
Conversation analysis is an approach to the study of social interaction and talk-in-interaction that, although rooted in the sociological study of everyday life, has exerted significant influence across the humanities and social sciences including linguistics. Drawing on recordings (both audio and video) naturalistic interaction (unscripted, non-elicited, etc.) conversation analysts attempt to describe the stable practices and underlying normative organizations of interaction by moving back and forth between the close study of singular instances and the analysis of patterns exhibited across collections of cases. Four important domains of research within conversation analysis are turn-taking, repair, action formation and ascription, and action sequencing.