Guide Language universals and variation

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Cognitive Approaches. Universals and variation in language. Cognitive linguistics claims that there are general cognitive principles that are true for all humans.
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They argue that the variation they find in their data does not threaten a binary division into these two lan- guage types as it can be attributed to processes that do not interfere with the parametric dis- tinction. Tagliamonte argues that default agreement occurs in all varieties of English and that in this sense it is a universal property of English.

Variation of default agreement, i. For example, default agreement with plural noun phrases is widespread and in some locales categorical, giving rise to the well known Northern Subject Rule. Contact-induced variation The articles in this section concern themselves with variation that arises as the result of lan- guage contact. It is probably fair to say that today the main focus of language contact studies lies on finding universally valid constraints on processes of borrowing and transfer, i.

Universals of language contact thus constrain the amount of variation as well as the type of variation that language contact processes can introduce. A the- ory of language contact ideally makes predictions regarding what can happen in such situa- tions and what is ruled out, or at least what is likely or less likely to happen. It can be considered an established fact that there are no simple universal constraints on language contact processes that would allow us to formulate watertight predictions concern- ing the outcome of any situation of language contact.

Language contact situations are ex- tremely heterogeneous and complex, and one needs to consider a substantial number of fac- tors to offer convincing explanations for language contact phenomena or to make predictions on the results of on-going language contact processes. I briefly review here the most impor- tant factors and then discuss how the papers placed in this section work towards a refinement of these factors. The relevance of these papers for the volume as a whole lies in the overlap of these factors with those constraining the other types of variation discussed here dialectal variation, cross-linguistic variation, grammar-internal variation, etc.

Dahl ; McWhorter , ; Miestamo et al. To be sure, much depends on our understanding of simplification and in those studies that see language contact as a trigger of simplification processes what is usually meant is the reduction or loss of morphological categories. In other words, language contact triggers or leads to the reduction of inflectional morphology.

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Moreo- ver, the reduction processes positively correlate with the intensity of the contact situation. In his contribution to the present volume, Hans-Olav Enger illustrates this general finding on the basis of Scandinavian dialectal gender systems where various cases of contact-induced gender reduction are reported e. However, the literature on lan- guage contact also reports numerous cases of complexification where the inventory of mor- phological categories — or grammatical categories in more general terms — has increased as a result of language contact.

Especially in the typological literature we find numerous cases of language contact reported that resulted in an increased morphological complexity of at least one of the languages involved Aikhenvald , ; Nichols In view of these re- sults Enger argues that the traditional focus on simplification processes in the study of Scan- dinavian gender systems falls short of empirical reality and needs to be replaced by a view- point that also takes pronominal gender and more generally the syntagmatic aspects of gender into consideration.

Adopting this perspective, one will notice that the systems of pronominal gender found in the contact varieties became more elaborate and that in the modern contact varieties significantly more gender exponents e. Enger concludes that contact-induced processes of simplification and complexifi- cation may operate side by side albeit in different grammatical subsystems paradigmatic ver- sus syntagmatic.

Universals and variation in language and thought: Concepts, communication, and semantic structure

Another important research area in language contact studies concerns systematic con- straints on processes of borrowing and transfer. According to a well-known differentiation cf. Thomason , instances of contact-induced language change can be the result of two fun- damental processes i. Moreover, the linguistic results of these processes are quite dif- ferent. In such situa- tions speakers may exchange lexical material, though they are less likely to influence the grammatical systems of the contact languages.

Transfer processes, in contrast, typically arise in highly unbalanced social situations when, say, one social group becomes socially domi- nated by another group and the dominated group is forced to learn the language of the domi- nating group. Such constellations can trigger widespread L2 learning as a consequence of which grammatical features of the substrate language may be transferred into the superstrate language. A low degree of contact intensity can be expected to lead to the borrowing of lexi- cal items, while a high degree of contact may have substantial effects on grammatical subsys- tems of the contact languages.

For instance, it is widely accepted that inflectional morphology normally resists borrowing or transfer, but in a highly intense language contact situation pieces or even subsystem of inflectional morphology may find their way from one language into another. Several researchers have tried to identify restrictions on the borrowing or trans- fer of grammatical subsystems typically resulting in the formulation of implicational hierar- chies.

Noam Chomsky speaks about Universal Linguistics: Origins of Language

In his contribution to the present volume, Yaron Matras — based on an extensive sample of cross-linguistic contact situations — offers several proposals for fine-tuning existing bor- rowing hierarchies leading to important new constraints on the expectable variation in situa- tions of language contact. Matras embeds and discusses these findings within a new and unique conception of bilingual- ism that does not view the bilingual mind as a harbor of two separate linguistic systems, but rather as a complex repository of linguistic structures from two or more languages comple- mented by an extensive set of conditions on their usage selection principles.

Borrowing, on this view, comes to be interpreted as a violation of these selection principles such that linguis- tic forms originally tied to specific usage contexts appear in new contexts. The research findings of language contact studies are highly relevant for our under- standing of linguistic universals as universally valid constraints on the architecture and the processing of languages should manifest themselves very clearly in language contact situa- tions.

As I see it, we can plausibly consider language contact as a generator of language varia- tion and linguistic universals as filters, as it were, that separate the instances of permissible variation from those that violate these universals, should these be generated at all. Methodological issues of variation research Even though linguistic variation is readily observable, it is difficult to turn into an object of scientific investigation. An important problem, as Walter Bisang points out in his contribu- tion, is reproducibility.

Any scientific investigation must be based on data that are in principle reproducible, meaning that matching pieces of empirical evidence can be created at different points in time as long as the parameters conditioning the empirical evidence are kept constant. To take a simple example, the boiling or freezing of water can be replicated provided a certain number of external parameters is maintained. The problem is that there is no similar guarantee for the reproducibility of linguistic data since these data by necessity are subject to social and functional variation as well as the psychological state of the subjects.

In equivalent experimental settings elicitation different subjects will produce heterogeneous data because all subjects are different at the individual level. Moreover, the same subjects may produce different data at different points in time even if the experimental setting is kept constant. Observational evidence text corpora, audio mate- rial, etc. More often than not, this type of data lacks metainformation as e. To be sure, variation research — especially in the socio-linguistic tradition — is well aware of these problems and has laid great emphasis on controlling external parameters as well as the importance of statistical generalizations.


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Put in a nutshell, the main idea of statisti- cal generalizations is that even if one and the same individual will never produce the same data point twice and even if a set of individuals will never produce exactly corresponding data points, the statistical means derived from such production and elicitation tasks can be ex- pected to converge very strongly. This line of argumentation also carries over to observational evidence where balanced samples of text converge around some statistical mean. Bisang dis- cusses this point drawing on Featherston who states that: There is no such thing as an ideal speaker-listener in one person, but the mean of a rea- sonably sized sample has exactly the characteristics one would expect an ideal speaker- listener to have.

Typology: The study of unity or diversity?

Featherston However, as is also well known the statistical mean says nothing about the individual; ironi- cally, there even may be no individual corresponding to the statistical mean. To be sure, these problems also play a certain role in some of the other papers of the volume, but two papers clearly stand out insofar as they try to give at least partial answers to the issues of reproducibility and also representativity identi- fied by Bisang. In other words, these features cannot be reproduced for all speakers who use vernacular forms and occur with speakers who do not use vernacular forms.

It should also be noted that their reproducibility in the individual speaker can never be guaranteed since speakers typically control more than one lect. This approach is based on a statistical analysis of a sub- stantial set of non-standard features across a large sample of English varieties. Using Principal Component Analysis, Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi are able to show that non-standard features form bundles correlating with the variety type L1 variety, L2 variety, high contact variety, etc.

This approach at least partially solves the problem of reproducibility as it effectively turns it into a statistical problem. Kortmann and Szmrecsanyi offer a second alternative to the search for individual non- standard features qualifying as vernacular universals, and in doing so again address the prob- lem of reproducibility. The results show that varieties of English systematically differ along these parameters and, moreover, that these differences again pattern with the va- riety type.

To be sure, this concerns the reproducibility of some statistical mean, which, again, is different from reproducibility at the level of the indi- vidual. Even though a statistical mean is usually reproducible in corpus-based approaches, lin- guistic analyses based on such statistical information are not without problems.

In the contribution by Julia Davydova, Michaela Hilbert, Lukas Pietsch and Peter Siemund, another important problem is identified and analyzed in great detail. They demonstrate that this phenomenon — even though it is at- tested in a significant number of varieties — eschews comparison, as there are highly signifi- cant differences with regard to the verbs that can be found in the relevant contexts. Such considerations show that quantitative analyses must be complemented by careful quali- tative interpretations.

To sum up, it is clear that reproducibility remains a highly important touchstone of sci- entific investigations. It is also clear that linguistic studies sampling individual human sub- jects will never be fully reproducible, as the experimental conditions usually cannot be repli- cated. What can be reproduced with a good chance of success, however, are statistical means, but these carry the danger of not being representative of individual grammars.

Moreover, they may conceal distinctions that more fine-grained qualitative studies of these individual gram- mars would reveal. Variation and linguistic theory The traditional concern of most mainstream linguistic theorizing focuses on the systemic aspects of language. As pointed out above, this is understandable as theories aim for predic- tive power and hence are difficult — if not outright impossible — to design for chaotic data sets. Nevertheless, recent linguistic theorizing has begun to tackle variation data and has produced a number of highly insightful proposals.

With Dufter et al.


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