Plenary Talks


Eitan Grossman

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Have typological distributions always been the same? The Uniformitarian principle in light of phonological typology

Most discussions of the Uniformitarian Assumption in linguistics (Labov, 1972; Lass, 1997; Newmeyer, 2002; Janda & Joseph, 2003) stress that the Uniformitarian Assumption relates to the time-independence of the historical processes undergone by languages. However, it is also the case that linguists regularly make inferences about markedness, naturalness, or learnability on the basis of present-day distributions, particularly the cross-linguistic frequency of linguistic properties. One can call this the Implicit Uniformitarian Assumption, according to which theories of grammar can be based on present-day distributions. This, in turn, seems to be founded on what Lass (1997) has called the Uniform Probabilities Principle: ‘The (global, cross-linguistic) likelihood of any linguistic state of affairs (structure, inventory, process, etc.) has always been roughly the same as it is now.’

In this talk, I explore the contribution of event-based factors (Bickel, 2015) in shaping present-day distributions in sound systems. The study is based on the comparison of three large-scale databases: phoible (Moran et al., 2014), for present-day distributions; bdproto (Marsico et al., 2018), for distributions in reconstructed proto-languages; and SegBo, the new World Survey of Phonological Segment Borrowing (Grossman et al., 2019). At present, SegBo includes 1600 events of phonological segment borrowing in a sample of the world's languages (500 borrowing languages, 220 donor languages).

The main focus of this talk is the question: what is the contribution of phonological segment borrowing to the present-day distribution of segments in phonological inventories? The main hypothesis to be explored is that the present-day distribution of sound patterns differs from the distribution of sound patterns in the world's languages around 500–1000 years before present and that the difference can be attributed, at least in part, to event-based triggers, i.e., the contingencies of human history that brought languages into contact with each other. In other words, the hypothesis is that the Implicit Uniformitarian Assumption does not hold for sound inventories. For example, labiodental fricatives, despite their high frequency in present-day distributions, are often the result of relatively recent borrowing events, which corroborate their evolutionary lateness in phonological systems (Blasi et al., 2019). Moreover, our data points to the conclusion that pre-contact phonological inventories showed greater areal specificity, both at a macro-level (i.e., roughly continent-sized areas) and at a micro-level (i.e., of what are commonly thought of as linguistic areas, e.g., the Andes, South Asia, or Western Europe).

(You can download the abstract with references here.)

Christa König

Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main

Discourse markers in Akie

Akie is a Nilotic (Nilo-Saharan) hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Southern Maasai Steppe of Tanzania. Highly endangered, with only about 250 speakers being left, Akie is a typical Southern-Nilotic language with nominal case expressed by tone and verb-initial (VSO) basic word order.

The paper to be presented will shed light on the discourse markers of Akie, which are used not so much on a sentence level but more in other domains such as the overall structure of discourse, to provide information on the organization of the text, on speaker-hearer interaction, and/or the intentions and attitudes of the speaker. Dirscourse markers are typically highly flexible with regard to the position in which they are used. An overview of the different discourse markers of Akie will be given, highlighting some particular items. The discourse marker ntan, whose meaning sometimes corresponds to English ‘you know’, is discussed in more detail to illustrate the way in which discourse markers in Akie are used. Thepaper is based on work in a five years' reseach project within the DoBeS (Documentation of Endangered Languages) scheme, carried out jointly with Karsten Legere and Bernd Heine.

Serial Verb Constructions in !Xun

The !Xun language of the Kx'a family (former called Northern Khoisan), spoken in the southern part of Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Angola) has a special type of verb serialization that seems to be a salient property not only of of Kx'a but also of Tui and Taa languages (former called South Khoisan). The serial verb construction (henceforth: SVC) of !Xun is of the contiguous type. Within the SVC, a set of 33 so-called coverbs are used to express a range of schematized meanings. The different functions covered by coverbs range from tense, aspect, modality, location, motion, direction, case, up to discourse functions. The SVC is a very productive pattern of !Xun, up to five verbs may be part of one SVC. Mostly asymmetrical SVCs are used, that is, SVCs in which one verb expresses the main semantics whereas the other or others serve grammaticalized functions.

Research on SVCs has focused in the past mainly on regions such as West Africa and Mainland South East Asia, while Southern Africa has been notoriously ignored in this research.