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Gender is a grammatical feature, in a family with person, number, and case. In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender. A typical example is Italian, which has masculine words for male persons (il bambino “the.
Across the languages of the world, gender systems vary widely. They differ in the number of classes, in the underlying assignment rules, and in how and where gender is marked. Since agreement is a definitional property, gender is generally absent in isolating languages as well as in young languages with little bound morphology, including sign languages. Therefore, gender is considered a mature phenomenon in language.
Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features. For example, it may be limited to the singular number or the third person, and it may be crosscut by case distinctions. These and other interrelations can complicate the task of figuring out a gender system in first or second language acquisition. Yet, children master gender early, making use of a broad variety of cues. By contrast, gender is famously difficult for second-language learners. This is especially true for adults and for learners whose first language does not have a gender system. Nevertheless, tests show that even for this group, native-like competence is possible to attain.
Different methods exist for classifying languages, depending on whether the task is to work out the relations among languages already known to be related—internal language classification—or whether the task is to establish that certain languages are related—external language classification.
The comparative method in historical linguistics, developed during the latter part of the 19th century, represents one method for internal language classification; lexicostatistics, developed during the 1950s, represents another. Elements of lexicostatistics have been transformed and carried over into modern computational linguistic phylogenetics, and currently efforts are also being made to automate the comparative method. Recent years have seen rapid progress in the development of methods, tools, and resources for language classification. For instance, computational phylogenetic algorithms and software have made it possible to handle the classification of many languages using explicit models of language change, and data have been gathered for two thirds of the world’s language, allowing for rapid, exploratory classifications. There are also many open questions and venues for future research, for instance: What are the real-world counterparts to the nodes in a family tree structure? How can shortcomings in the traditional method of comparative historical linguistics be overcome? How can the understanding of the results that computational linguistic phylogenetics have to offer be improved?
External language classification, a notoriously difficult task, has also benefitted from the advent of computational power. While, in the past, the simultaneous comparison of many languages for the purpose of discovering deep genealogical links was carried out in a haphazard fashion, leaving too much room for the effect of chance similarities to kick in, this sort of activity can now be done in a systematic, objective way on an unprecedented scale. The ways of producing final, convincing evidence for a deep genealogical relation, however, have not changed much. There is some room for improvement in this area, but even more room for improvement in the way that proposals for long-distance relations are evaluated.
Knut Tarald Taraldsen
This article presents different types of generative grammar that can be used as models of natural languages focusing on a small subset of all the systems that have been devised. The central idea behind generative grammar may be rendered in the words of Richard Montague: “I reject the contention that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages” (“Universal Grammar,” Theoria, 36 , 373–398).
The German sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) occupies an interesting place at the intersection of several streams of linguistic scholarship at the end of the 19th century. As Professor of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig from 1878 to 1889 and then Professor for Sinology and General Linguistics at the University of Berlin from 1889 until his death, Gabelentz was present at some of the main centers of linguistics at the time. He was, however, generally critical of mainstream historical-comparative linguistics as propagated by the neogrammarians, and instead emphasized approaches to language inspired by a line of researchers including Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), H. Steinthal (1823–1899), and his own father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874).
Today Gabelentz is chiefly remembered for several theoretical and methodological innovations which continue to play a role in linguistics. Most significant among these are his contributions to cross-linguistic syntactic comparison and typology, grammar-writing, and grammaticalization. His earliest linguistic work emphasized the importance of syntax as a core part of grammar and sought to establish a framework for the cross-linguistic description of word order, as had already been attempted for morphology by other scholars. The importance he attached to syntax was motivated by his engagement with Classical Chinese, a language almost devoid of morphology and highly reliant on syntax. In describing this language in his 1881 Chinesische Grammatik, Gabelentz elaborated and implemented the complementary “analytic” and “synthetic” systems of grammar, an approach to grammar-writing that continues to serve as a point of reference up to the present day. In his summary of contemporary thought on the nature of grammatical change in language, he became one of the first linguists to formulate the principles of grammaticalization in essentially the form that this phenomenon is studied today, although he did not use the current term. One key term of modern linguistics that he did employ, however, is “typology,” a term that he in fact coined. Gabelentz’s typology was a development on various contemporary strands of thought, including his own comparative syntax, and is widely acknowledged as a direct precursor of the present-day field.
Gabelentz is a significant transitional figure from the 19th to the 20th century. On the one hand, his work seems very modern. Beyond his contributions to grammaticalization avant la lettre and his christening of typology, his conception of language prefigures the structuralist revolution of the early 20th century in important respects. On the other hand, he continues to entertain several preoccupations of the 19th century—in particular the judgment of the relative value of different languages—which were progressively banished from linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century.
Linguistic change not only affects the lexicon and the phonology of words, it also operates on the grammar of a language. In this context, grammaticalization is concerned with the development of lexical items into markers of grammatical categories or, more generally, with the development of markers used for procedural cueing of abstract relationships out of linguistic items with concrete referential meaning. A well-known example is the English verb go in its function of a future marker, as in She is going to visit her friend. Phenomena like these are very frequent across the world’s languages and across many different domains of grammatical categories. In the last 50 years, research on grammaticalization has come up with a plethora of (a) generalizations, (b) models of how grammaticalization works, and (c) methodological refinements.
On (a): Processes of grammaticalization develop gradually, step by step, and the sequence of the individual stages follows certain clines as they have been generalized from cross-linguistic comparison (unidirectionality). Even though there are counterexamples that go against the directionality of various clines, their number seems smaller than assumed in the late 1990s.
On (b): Models or scenarios of grammaticalization integrate various factors. Depending on the theoretical background, grammaticalization and its results are motivated either by the competing motivations of economy vs. iconicity/explicitness in functional typology or by a change from movement to merger in the minimalist program. Pragmatic inference is of central importance for initiating processes of grammaticalization (and maybe also at later stages), and it activates mechanisms like reanalysis and analogy, whose status is controversial in the literature. Finally, grammaticalization does not only work within individual languages/varieties, it also operates across languages. In situations of contact, the existence of a certain grammatical category may induce grammaticalization in another language.
On (c): Even though it is hard to measure degrees of grammaticalization in terms of absolute and exact figures, it is possible to determine relative degrees of grammaticalization in terms of the autonomy of linguistic signs. Moreover, more recent research has come up with criteria for distinguishing grammaticalization and lexicalization (defined as the loss of productivity, transparency, and/or compositionality of former productive, transparent, and compositional structures).
In spite of these findings, there are still quite a number of questions that need further research. Two questions to be discussed address basic issues concerning the overall properties of grammaticalization. (1) What is the relation between constructions and grammaticalization? In the more traditional view, constructions are seen as the syntactic framework within which linguistic items are grammaticalized. In more recent approaches based on construction grammar, constructions are defined as combinations of form and meaning. Thus, grammaticalization can be seen in the light of constructionalization, i.e., the creation of new combinations of form and meaning. Even though constructionalization covers many apects of grammaticalization, it does not exhaustively cover the domain of grammaticalization. (2) Is grammaticalization cross-linguistically homogeneous, or is there a certain range of variation? There is evidence from East and mainland Southeast Asia that there is cross-linguistic variation to some extent.
In the course of its long history, Greek has experienced a particularly multifarious and profound contact with Romance, in a wide geographical area that spreads from western to eastern Europe and also covers part of the once Hellenophone Asia Minor. The beginning of this contact is difficult to delimit given that the ancestor languages, Ancient Greek and Latin, were already in interaction even before the Roman period of the Greek-speaking world. Both Greek and Romance (Italo-Romance, Gallo-Romance, Aromanian, and Judeo-Spanish) have acted as donor or recipient, depending on the specific historical and sociolinguistic circumstances. A significant number of lexical items (roots, affixes, and words) were transferred from one language to another, while phonological and structural transfers have also occurred in areas where Greek has been in constant and long contact with Romance, as for instance, in south Italy. Greek has been the basis for the formation of scientific internationalisms in Romance, and reversely it has recently adopted Romance terms and term-forming affixes.
While in phonology Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) dialects preserved the phonological system of Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) virtually intact, their morphosyntax underwent far-reaching changes, which altered fundamentally the synthetic morphology of earlier Prākrits in the direction of the analytic typology of New Indo-Aryan (NIA). Speaking holistically, the “accusative alignment” of OIA (Vedic Sanskrit) was restructured as an “ergative alignment” in Western IA languages, and it is precisely during the Late MIA period (ca. 5th–12th centuries
(a) We shall start with the restructuring of the nominal case system in terms of the reduction of the number of cases from seven to four. This phonologically motivated process resulted ultimately in the rise of the binary distinction of the “absolutive” versus “oblique” case at the end of the MIA period). (b) The crucial role of animacy in the restructuring of the pronominal system and the rise of the “double-oblique” system in Ardha-Māgadhī and Western Apabhramśa will be explicated. (c) In the verbal system we witness complete remodeling of the aspectual system as a consequence of the loss of earlier synthetic forms expressing the perfective (Aorist) and “retrospective” (Perfect) aspect. Early Prākrits (Pāli) preserved their sigmatic Aorists (and the sigmatic Future) until late MIA centuries, while on the Iranian side the loss of the “sigmatic” aorist was accelerated in Middle Persian by the “weakening” of s > h > Ø. (d) The development and the establishment of “ergative alignment” at the end of the MIA period will be presented as a consequence of the above typological changes: the rise of the “absolutive” vs. “oblique” case system; the loss of the finite morphology of the perfective and retrospective aspect; and the recreation of the aspectual contrast of perfectivity by means of quasinominal (participial) forms. (e) Concurrently with the development toward the analyticity in grammatical aspect, we witness the evolution of lexical aspect (Aktionsart) ushering in the florescence of “serial” verbs in New Indo-Aryan.
On the whole, a contingency view of alignment considers the increase in ergativity as a by-product of the restoration of the OIA aspectual triad: Imperfective–Perfective–Perfect (in morphological terms Present–Aorist–Perfect). The NIA Perfective and Perfect are aligned ergatively, while their finite OIA ancestors (Aorist and Perfect) were aligned accusatively. Detailed linguistic analysis of Middle Indo-Aryan texts offers us a unique opportunity for a deeper comprehension of the formative period of the NIA state of affairs.
Silvio Moreira de Sousa, Johannes Mücke, and Philipp Krämer
As an institutionalized subfield of academic research, Creole studies (or Creolistics) emerged in the second half of the 20th century on the basis of pioneering works in the last decades of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Yet its research traditions—just like the Creole languages themselves—are much older and are deeply intertwined with the history of European colonialism, slavery, and Christian missionary activities all around the globe. Throughout the history of research, creolists focused on the emergence of Creole languages and their grammatical structures—often in comparison to European colonial languages. In connection with the observations in grammar and history, creolists discussed theoretical matters such as the role of language acquisition in creolization, the status of Creoles among the other languages in the world, and the social conditions in which they are or were spoken. These discussions molded the way in which the acquired knowledge was transmitted to the following generations of creolists.
The grammatization of European vernacular languages began in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance and continued up until the end of the 18th century. Through this process, grammars were written for the vernaculars and, as a result, the vernaculars were able to establish themselves in important areas of communication. Vernacular grammars largely followed the example of those written for Latin, using Latin descriptive categories without fully adapting them to the vernaculars. In accord with the Greco-Latin tradition, the grammars typically contain sections on orthography, prosody, morphology, and syntax, with the most space devoted to the treatment of word classes in the section on “etymology.” The earliest grammars of vernaculars had two main goals: on the one hand, making the languages described accessible to non-native speakers, and on the other, supporting the learning of Latin grammar by teaching the grammar of speakers’ native languages. Initially, it was considered unnecessary to engage with the grammar of native languages for their own sake, since they were thought to be acquired spontaneously. Only gradually did a need for normative grammars develop which sought to codify languages. This development relied on an awareness of the value of vernaculars that attributed a certain degree of perfection to them. Grammars of indigenous languages in colonized areas were based on those of European languages and today offer information about the early state of those languages, and are indeed sometimes the only sources for now extinct languages. Grammars of vernaculars came into being in the contrasting contexts of general grammar and the grammars of individual languages, between grammar as science and as art and between description and standardization. In the standardization of languages, the guiding principle could either be that of anomaly, which took a particular variety of a language as the basis of the description, or that of analogy, which permitted interventions into a language aimed at making it more uniform.
Ans van Kemenade
The status of English in the early 21st century makes it hard to imagine that the language started out as an assortment of North Sea Germanic dialects spoken in parts of England only by immigrants from the continent. Itself soon under threat, first from the language(s) spoken by Viking invaders, then from French as spoken by the Norman conquerors, English continued to thrive as an essentially West-Germanic language that did, however, undergo some profound changes resulting from contact with Scandinavian and French. A further decisive period of change is the late Middle Ages, which started a tremendous societal scale-up that triggered pervasive multilingualism. These repeated layers of contact between different populations, first locally, then nationally, followed by standardization and 18th-century codification, metamorphosed English into a language closely related to, yet quite distinct from, its closest relatives Dutch and German in nearly all language domains, not least in word order, grammar, and pronunciation.
The basic vocabulary of Portuguese—the second largest Romance language in terms of speakers (about 210 million as of 2017)—comes from (vulgar) Latin, which itself incorporated a certain amount of so-called substratum and superstratum words. Whereas the former were adopted in a situation of language contact between Latin and the languages of the conquered peoples inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula, the latter are Germanic loans brought mainly by the Visigoths. From 711 onward, until the end of the Middle Ages, Arabic played a major role in the Peninsula, contributing about 1,000 words that are common in Modern Portuguese. (Classical) Latin and Greek were other sources for lexical enrichment especially in the 15th and 16th centuries as well as in the 18th and 19th centuries. Contact with other European languages—Romance and Germanic (especially English, and to a lower extent German)—led to borrowings in several thematic fields reflecting the economic, cultural, and scientific radiance that emanated from the respective language communities. In the course of colonial expansion, Portuguese came into contact with several African, Asian, and Amerindian languages from which it borrowed words for concepts and realia unknown to the Western world.
David R. Mortensen
Hmong-Mien (also known as Miao-Yao) is a bipartite family of minority languages spoken primarily in China and mainland Southeast Asia. The two branches, called Hmongic and Mienic by most Western linguists and Miao and Yao by Chinese linguists, are both compact groups (phylogenetically if not geographically). Although they are uncontroversially distinct from one another, they bear a strong mutual affinity. But while their internal relationships are reasonably well established, there is no unanimity regarding their wider genetic affiliations, with many Chinese scholars insisting on Hmong-Mien membership in the Sino-Tibetan superfamily, some Western scholars suggesting a relationship to Austronesian and/or Tai-Kradai, and still others suggesting a relationship to Mon-Khmer. A plurality view appears to be that Hmong-Mien bears no special relationship to any surviving language family.
Hmong-Mien languages are typical—in many respects—of the non-Sino-Tibetan languages of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. However, they possess a number of properties that make them stand out. Many neighboring languages are tonal, but Hmong-Mien languages are, on average, more so (in terms of the number of tones). While some other languages in the area have small-to-medium consonant inventories, Hmong-Mien languages (and especially Hmongic languages) often have very large consonant inventories with rare classes of sounds like uvulars and voiceless sonorants. Furthermore, while many of their neighbors are morphologically isolating, few language groups display as little affixation as Hmong-Mien languages. They are largely head-initial, but they deviate from this generalization in their genitive-noun constructions and their relative clauses (which vary in position and structure, sometimes even within the same language).
Hokan is a linguistic stock or phylum based on a series of hypotheses about deeper genetic relationships among languages that extend geographically from Northern California to Nicaragua. Following the general effort to genetically link the vast number of Native American languages and to reduce them to a few superstocks, Dixon and Kroeber first proposed the Hokan stock in 1913, to include several California indigenous languages: Karuk, Chimariko, Shastan, Palaihnihan (Atsugewi and Achumawi), Pomoan, Yana, and later Esselen and Yuman. The name Hokan stems from the Atsugewi word for “two”: hoqi. While the first proposals by Dixon and Kroeber rested on very limited cognate sets comprising only five words, later assessments by Sapir included hundreds of putative cognate sets and analyses of Hokan morphosyntax. By 1925, Sapir further included Washo, Salinan, Seri, Chumashan, Tequistlatecan, and Subtiaba-Tlapanec as the Southern Hokan branch into the stock.
Throughout the 20th century, scholars sought additional evidence for the stock as more and refined data on the languages became available. A number of languages were added, and earlier proposals were abandoned. A new surge in work on individual California indigenous languages in the 1950s and 1960s prompted a string of studies conducting binary comparisons. This renewed interest inspired a series of Hokan conferences held until the 1990s. A more recent comprehensive assessment of the entire stock was undertaken by Kaufman in 1988. Applying rigorous analysis and only implicating those languages for which he encountered substantial evidence, Kaufman proposes sixteen classificatory units for Hokan clustered geographically. Kaufman’s Hokan stock also includes Coahuilteco and Comecrudan in Mexico and Jicaque in Nicaragua.
Although Hokan was widely studied in the 20th century, and many scholars presented what they thought to be supporting evidence, it is far from being an established genetic unit. In fact, many scholars today treat it with a lot of skepticism. One major challenge, as with any phylum-level affiliation, is its time depth. Proto-Hokan is thought to be at least as antique as Proto-Indo-European. Moreover, many of the languages were spoken in geographically contiguous areas, with speakers being multilingual and in close contact for an extended period of time, as is the case in Northern California. This suggests considerable language contact effects and complicates the distinction between true cognates and ancient borrowings. Many of the languages involved further show similarities in grammatical structure as a result of language contact.
Hokan languages stretch across California, Nevada, South Texas, various parts of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua and display notable structural differences. Phonologically, the languages show great variation including small and large phoneme inventories and different phonological processes. Typologically, they are equally diverse, but many are considered polysynthetic to varying degrees. Morphosyntactic and grammatical similarities are evident especially among languages spoken in Northern California. These resemblances include sets of lexical affixes with similar meanings and affinities in core argument patterns.
Interest in the linguistics of humor is widespread and dates since classical times. Several theoretical models have been proposed to describe and explain the function of humor in language. The most widely adopted one, the semantic-script theory of humor, was presented by Victor Raskin, in 1985. Its expansion, to incorporate a broader gamut of information, is known as the General Theory of Verbal Humor. Other approaches are emerging, especially in cognitive and corpus linguistics. Within applied linguistics, the predominant approach is analysis of conversation and discourse, with a focus on the disparate functions of humor in conversation. Speakers may use humor pro-socially, to build in-group solidarity, or anti-socially, to exclude and denigrate the targets of the humor. Most of the research has focused on how humor is co-constructed and used among friends, and how speakers support it. Increasingly, corpus-supported research is beginning to reshape the field, introducing quantitative concerns, as well as multimodal data and analyses. Overall, the linguistics of humor is a dynamic and rapidly changing field.
Irit Meir and Oksana Tkachman
Iconicity is a relationship of resemblance or similarity between the two aspects of a sign: its form and its meaning. An iconic sign is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way. The opposite of iconicity is arbitrariness. In an arbitrary sign, the association between form and meaning is based solely on convention; there is nothing in the form of the sign that resembles aspects of its meaning. The Hindu-Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3 are arbitrary, because their current form does not correlate to any aspect of their meaning. In contrast, the Roman numerals I, II, III are iconic, because the number of occurrences of the sign I correlates with the quantity that the numerals represent. Because iconicity has to do with the properties of signs in general and not only those of linguistic signs, it plays an important role in the field of semiotics—the study of signs and signaling. However, language is the most pervasive symbolic communicative system used by humans, and the notion of iconicity plays an important role in characterizing the linguistic sign and linguistic systems. Iconicity is also central to the study of literary uses of language, such as prose and poetry.
There are various types of iconicity: the form of a sign may resemble aspects of its meaning in several ways: it may create a mental image of the concept (imagic iconicity), or its structure and the arrangement of its elements may resemble the structural relationship between components of the concept represented (diagrammatic iconicity). An example of the first type is the word cuckoo, whose sounds resemble the call of the bird, or a sign such as RABBIT in Israeli Sign Language, whose form—the hands representing the rabbit's long ears—resembles a visual property of that animal. An example of diagrammatic iconicity is vēnī, vīdī, vīcī, where the order of clauses in a discourse is understood as reflecting the sequence of events in the world.
Iconicity is found on all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. It is found both in spoken languages and in sign languages. However, sign languages, because of the visual-gestural modality through which they are transmitted, are much richer in iconic devices, and therefore offer a rich array of topics and perspectives for investigating iconicity, and the interaction between iconicity and language structure.
Noun incorporation (NI) is a grammatical construction where a nominal, usually bearing the semantic role of an object, has been incorporated into a verb to form a complex verb or predicate. Traditionally, incorporation was considered to be a word formation process, similar to compounding or cliticization. The fact that a syntactic entity (object) was entering into the lexical process of word formation was theoretically problematic, leading to many debates about the true nature of NI as a lexical or syntactic process. The analytic complexity of NI is compounded by the clear connections between NI and other processes such as possessor raising, applicatives, and classification systems and by its relation with case, agreement, and transitivity. In some cases, it was noted that no morpho-phonological incorporation is discernable beyond perhaps adjacency and a reduced left periphery for the noun. Such cases were termed pseudo noun incorporation, as they exhibit many properties of NI, minus any actual morpho-phonological incorporation. On the semantic side, it was noted that NI often correlates with a particular interpretation in which the noun is less referential and the predicate is more general. This led semanticists to group together all phenomena with similar semantics, whether or not they involve morpho-phonological incorporation. The role of cases of morpho-phonological NI that do not exhibit this characteristic semantics, i.e., where the incorporated nominal can be referential and the action is not general, remains a matter of debate. The interplay of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics that is found in NI, as well as its lexical overtones, has resulted in a wide range of analyses at all levels of the grammar. What all NI constructions share is that according to various diagnostics, a thematic element, usually correlating with an internal argument, functions to a lesser extent as an independent argument and instead acts as part of a predicate. In addition to cases of incorporation between verbs and internal arguments, there are also some cases of incorporation of subjects and adverbs, which remain less well understood.
Inflection is the systematic relation between words’ morphosyntactic content and their morphological form; as such, the phenomenon of inflection raises fundamental questions about the nature of morphology itself and about its interfaces. Within the domain of morphology proper, it is essential to establish how (or whether) inflection differs from other kinds of morphology and to identify the ways in which morphosyntactic content can be encoded morphologically. A number of different approaches to modeling inflectional morphology have been proposed; these tend to cluster into two main groups, those that are morpheme-based and those that are lexeme-based. Morpheme-based theories tend to treat inflectional morphology as fundamentally concatenative; they tend to represent an inflected word’s morphosyntactic content as a compositional summing of its morphemes’ content; they tend to attribute an inflected word’s internal structure to syntactic principles; and they tend to minimize the theoretical significance of inflectional paradigms. Lexeme-based theories, by contrast, tend to accord concatenative and nonconcatenative morphology essentially equal status as marks of inflection; they tend to represent an inflected word’s morphosyntactic content as a property set intrinsically associated with that word’s paradigm cell; they tend to assume that an inflected word’s internal morphology is neither accessible to nor defined by syntactic principles; and they tend to treat inflection as the morphological realization of a paradigm’s cells. Four important issues for approaches of either sort are the nature of nonconcatenative morphology, the incidence of extended exponence, the underdetermination of a word’s morphosyntactic content by its inflectional form, and the nature of word forms’ internal structure. The structure of a word’s inventory of inflected forms—its paradigm—is the locus of considerable cross-linguistic variation. In particular, the canonical relation of content to form in an inflectional paradigm is subject to a wide array of deviations, including inflection-class distinctions, morphomic properties, defectiveness, deponency, metaconjugation, and syncretism; these deviations pose important challenges for understanding the interfaces of inflectional morphology, and a theory’s resolution of these challenges depends squarely on whether that theory is morpheme-based or lexeme-based.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
The concept of innateness (innate is first recorded in the period 1375–1425; from Latin innātus “inborn”) relates to types of behavior and knowledge that are present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization), prior to any sensory experience with the environment. The term has been applied to two general types of qualities. The first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological makeup. While both types of innatism have a long history in human philosophy and science (e.g., Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (Lorenz’s incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on his boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically faced with a greater sense of skepticism, and touches on a fundamental question in epistemological philosophy: Can reason be based (to a certain extent) on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and is independent of experience? The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s breakthrough nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language and the famous “Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus.” The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite collection of rules that, in principle, may generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus, the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.
The Iroquoian languages are spoken today in New York State, Ontario, Quebec, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. The languages share a relatively small segment inventory, a challenging accentual system, polysynthetic morphology, a complex system of pronominal affixes, an unusual kinship terminology, and a syntax that functions almost exclusively to combine the meaning of two expressions. Some of the languages have been documented since contact with Europeans in the 16th century. There exists substantial scholarly linguistic work on most of the languages, and solid teaching materials continue to be developed.
Research in neurolinguistics examines how language is organized and processed in the human brain. The findings from neurolinguistic studies on language can inform our understanding of the basic ingredients of language and the operations they undergo. In the domain of the lexicon, a major debate concerns whether and to what extent the morpheme serves as a basic unit of linguistic representation, and in turn whether and under what circumstances the processing of morphologically complex words involves operations that identify, activate, and combine morpheme-level representations during lexical processing. Alternative models positing some role for morphemes argue that complex words are processed via morphological decomposition and composition in the general case (full-decomposition models), or only under certain circumstances (dual-route models), while other models do not posit a role for morphemes (non-morphological models), instead arguing that complex words are related to their constituents not via morphological identity, but either via associations among whole-word representations or via similarity in formal and/or semantic features. Two main approaches to investigating the role of morphemes from a neurolinguistic perspective are neuropsychology, in which complex word processing is typically investigated in cases of brain insult or neurodegenerative disease, and brain imaging, which makes it possible to examine the temporal dynamics and neuroanatomy of complex word processing as it occurs in the brain. Neurolinguistic studies on morphology have examined whether the processing of complex words involves brain mechanisms that rapidly segment the input into potential morpheme constituents, how and under what circumstances morpheme representations are accessed from the lexicon, and how morphemes are combined to form complex morphosyntactic and morpho-semantic representations. Findings from this literature broadly converge in suggesting a role for morphemes in complex word processing, although questions remain regarding the precise time course by which morphemes are activated, the extent to which morpheme access is constrained by semantic or form properties, as well as regarding the brain mechanisms by which morphemes are ultimately combined into complex representations.