Polysynthesis is informally understood as the packing of a large number of morphemes into single words, as in (1) from Bininj Gun-wok (Evans, in press).1) a-ban-yawoyʔ-wargaʔ-maɳe-gaɲ-giɲe-ŋ 1SGSUBJ-3PLOBJ-again-wrong-BEN-meat-cook-PSTPF 'I cooked the wrong meat for them again.' Its status as a distinct typological category into which some of the world’s languages fall, on a par with isolating, agglutinating, or fusional languages, has been controversial from the start. Nevertheless, researchers working with these languages are seldom in doubt as to their status as distinct from these other morphological types. This has been complicated by the fact that the speakers of such languages are largely limited to hunter-gatherers—or were so in the not too distant past—so the temptation is to link the phenomenon directly to way of life. This proves to be oversimplified, although it is certainly true that languages qualifying as polysynthetic are almost everywhere spoken in peripheral regions and are on the decline in the modern world—few children are learning them today. Perhaps the most pervasive of the traits that give these languages the impression of a “special” status is that of holophrasis, which can be defined as the (possible) expression of what in less synthetic languages would be whole sentences in single complex (usually verbal) words. It turns out, however, that there is much greater variety among polysynthetic languages than is generally thought: there are few other traits that they all share, although distinct subtypes can in fact be distinguished, notably the affixing as opposed to the incorporating type. These languages have considerable importance for the investigation of the diachronic complexification of languages in general and of language acquisition by children, as well as for theories of language universals. The sociolinguistic factors behind their development have only recently begun to be studied in depth. All polysynthetic languages today are to some degree endangered (they are dying off at an alarming rate), and many have been poorly studied if at all, which makes their investigation before it is too late a prime goal for linguistics.
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Francis Jeffry Pelletier
Most linguists have heard of semantic compositionality. Some will have heard that it is the fundamental truth of semantics. Others will have been told that it is so thoroughly and completely wrong that it is astonishing that it is still being taught. The present article attempts to explain all this. Much of the discussion of semantic compositionality takes place in three arenas that are rather insulated from one another: (a) philosophy of mind and language, (b) formal semantics, and (c) cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology. A truly comprehensive overview of the writings in all these areas is not possible here. However, this article does discuss some of the work that occurs in each of these areas. A bibliography of general works, and some Internet resources, will help guide the reader to some further, undiscussed works (including further material in all three categories).
Harry van der Hulst
The subject of this article is vowel harmony. In its prototypical form, this phenomenon involves agreement between all vowels in a word for some phonological property (such as palatality, labiality, height or tongue root position). This agreement is then evidenced by agreement patterns within morphemes and by alternations in vowels when morphemes are combined into complex words, thus creating allomorphic alternations. Agreement involves one or more harmonic features for which vowels form harmonic pairs, such that each vowel has a harmonic counterpart in the other set. I will focus on vowels that fail to alternate, that are thus neutral (either inherently or in a specific context), and that will be either opaque or transparent to the process. We will compare approaches that use underspecification of binary features and approaches that use unary features. For vowel harmony, vowels are either triggers or targets, and for each, specific conditions may apply. Vowel harmony can be bidirectional or unidirectional and can display either a root control pattern or a dominant/recessive pattern.
Blocking can be defined as the non-occurrence of some linguistic form, whose existence could be expected on general grounds, due to the existence of a rival form. *Oxes, for example, is blocked by oxen, *stealer by thief. Although blocking is closely associated with morphology, in reality the competing “forms” can not only be morphemes or words, but can also be syntactic units. In German, for example, the compound Rotwein ‘red wine’ blocks the phrasal unit *roter Wein (in the relevant sense), just as the phrasal unit rote Rübe ‘beetroot; lit. red beet’ blocks the compound *Rotrübe. In these examples, one crucial factor determining blocking is synonymy; speakers apparently have a deep-rooted presumption against synonyms. Whether homonymy can also lead to a similar avoidance strategy, is still controversial. But even if homonymy blocking exists, it certainly is much less systematic than synonymy blocking. In all the examples mentioned above, it is a word stored in the mental lexicon that blocks a rival formation. However, besides such cases of lexical blocking, one can observe blocking among productive patterns. Dutch has three suffixes for deriving agent nouns from verbal bases, -er, -der, and -aar. Of these three suffixes, the first one is the default choice, while -der and -aar are chosen in very specific phonological environments: as Geert Booij describes in The Morphology of Dutch (2002), “the suffix -aar occurs after stems ending in a coronal sonorant consonant preceded by schwa, and -der occurs after stems ending in /r/” (p. 122). Contrary to lexical blocking, the effect of this kind of pattern blocking does not depend on words stored in the mental lexicon and their token frequency but on abstract features (in the case at hand, phonological features). Blocking was first recognized by the Indian grammarian Pāṇini in the 5th or 4th century bc, when he stated that of two competing rules, the more restricted one had precedence. In the 1960s, this insight was revived by generative grammarians under the name “Elsewhere Principle,” which is still used in several grammatical theories (Distributed Morphology and Paradigm Function Morphology, among others). Alternatively, other theories, which go back to the German linguist Hermann Paul, have tackled the phenomenon on the basis of the mental lexicon. The great advantage of this latter approach is that it can account, in a natural way, for the crucial role played by frequency. Frequency is also crucial in the most promising theory, so-called statistical pre-emption, of how blocking can be learned.
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.
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.