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Language Typology
Michael Opper – Ling 111
December 5, 2011
What is Typology?
• ‘Taxonomy’
• ‘Classification’
• Classifying phenomena into types
• As linguists, we are interested in classifying languages into
Languages and Typology
• By comparing several languages, we discover recurring
• Based on our observations, we try to explain linguistic
• A common origin for all of the world’s languages seems to be
an obvious explanation for universals. However, this is
speculative and untestable.
• Language Typology, as will be discussed today, classifies
languages into types based on linguistic phenomena
• Morphology – Word Formation
• Syntax – Determiners and Word Order
• Phonology – Possible Syllables and Phonemes
Morphology and Typology
• Language Typology as a field probably began with
morphological typology as proposed by Joseph Greenberg in
the 1950s-1970s
• Traditionally, languages have been classified into four types
• Analytic – sequences of free morphemes/ word = morpheme
• Agglutinative – Bound morphemes affix to stems and each
morpheme is distinctively clear
• Fusional – Bound morphemes affix to stems, but morpheme
boundaries unclear
• Polysynthetic – Entire clauses are single words
• These categories are often not clear-cut.
Continuum: Analytic to
Analytic Languages
• Each word is a morpheme.
• Purely analytic languages are called isolating languages, they
do not use affixes to form words
• Ex. Vietnamese
Agglutinative Languages
• Morphemes essentially have one form and are easy to identify
in a given word.
• Ex. Turkish
Fusional Languages
• Words are formed by adding bound morphemes to stems.
However, these morphemes aren’t always easy to identify.
• Ex. Spanish
Polysynthetic Languages
• Highly complex words are formed by combining several stems
and affixes. Nouns become part of a verb stem.
• Ex. West Greenlandic
How many languages have
A. Roughly 30%
B. Roughly 75%
C. Around 85-90%
D. 100%
All Languages Have Verbs!
Verbs denote actions
All languages also have nouns
Nouns denote people, places, or things
The distinction between nouns and verbs appears to be
universal across languages of the world.
• This entails that actions and entities are hard-wired concepts
in human language/cognition and must be distinguished from
one another.
Adjectives are not Universal!
• Certain parts of speech are universal, adjectives are not.
• In English, we tend to use the copula ‘to be’ between a subject
and an adjective.
• Ex. The woman is tall
• In several other languages, adjectives work like verbs forming
a predicate about a verb.
• Ex. Ilocano (an Austronesian language in the Philippines):
(marks the topic)
‘The woman is tall’
Adjectives in the World’s
Areal Effects
Europe was entirely blue
Southeast Asia and China were entirely red
Is this more than a coincidence?
Languages in the same area tend to influence one another
Through borrowing and shared developments it appears that
patterns often reoccur throughout a given region even if the
languages of that region are not closely related.
• Ex. Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese are NOT related languages,
but share the following characteristics:
• Verbal encoding for adjectives (as seen in the last slide)
• SVO word order
• Morphemes are monosyllabic
• When we were studying syntax we saw that English NPs often
require determiners: NP -> (Det) N.
• Ex. The cheese, A book…
• Sometimes English NPs do not require determiners:
• Ex. Mom, Mike, Steve
• NPs in some languages ALWAYS require determiners
• Many languages NEVER use determiners in their NPs.
One or the other…
• Some languages have a definite article (the) or an indefinite
article (a), but not both
• Kutenai (language isolate in North America) has the definite
but lacks the indefinite
• Madang (Papua New Guinea) has the indefinite, but lacks the
More about Determiners
• In some languages a demonstrative (this/that) and definite
article are the same, but their syntax may be different
• Ex. Ute (Western US)
• In some languages, the indefinite article and the number ‘one’
are the same. Syntactic order often disambiguates the
• Ex. Turkish
Definite Articles
Indefinite Articles
Word Order
• In HW4 we saw that Chinese and English have the same basic
word order – Subject Verb Object
• But this is not the only word order in languages of the world
• Since there are three parameters in variation (Subjects, Verbs,
and Objects), we should be able to see six word order patterns
(by factorial operation 3! = 3*2*1 = 6):
Which of the Following Orders
is LEAST common?
A Geographical Perspective on
Word Order
Why SOV, SVO, and VSO?
• SOV and SVO are significantly more common than OSV.
• The other orders (OVS, VSO, VOS) are essentially non-existent.
• Pragmatics (explanations based on practicality) can explain the
observed trends.
• SV order can be attributed to the fact that there is a tendency
for subjects to be topics – comments are made about topics
after they are introduced as a human cognition universal
• V and O are typically adjacent because they constitute a verb
• Movement occurs – VSO languages are SOV in deep structure
and the verb moves to the front of the sentence. Take Ling 315
for more details on this phenomenon.
Economy as an Explanation
• Elements which are highly predictable in context tend to be
• Dropping of subject pronouns (pro-drop) is common in the
world’s languages
• Ex. Spanish Lo compré ‘I bought it”
• Agreement makes pronouns redundant and uneconomical.
• Note that English is not rich in agreement morphology. English
sentences require subjects.
• It rained
• I bought it
A Review of the Syllable
• Earlier in the semester we learned about syllable structure:
Syllable (σ)
Nucleus (V)
Coda (C)s
• English can have consonant clusters in both the onset and
• Ex. strengths /strɛŋkθs/
• This is not true of all languages of the world.
Possible Syllable Types
• Which of the following syllable types are found in all
B. V
CV is Universal
• All documented languages have CV as a possible syllable type
• In some of these languages a consonant in the onset is
obligatory – a singleton V is impossible in these languages.
Ex. Arabic
• Some languages allow vowels to stand alone as their own
syllables but do not allow coda consonants
Ex. Naxi (Tibeto-Burman – China)
• Consonant clusters are complicated. Some languages allow
Consonant clusters in the onset position, but ban clusters in
coda position. There are languages in which the reverse is
Syllables Across the World
Velar Nasal
• English only allows velar nasals in the codas of syllables
• There isn’t a letter in the Roman Alphabet for this sound.
• When writing English (or transliterating sounds of other
languages) we use the combination ng for the sound /ŋ/
• But just how rare are velar nasals?
Velar Nasal from WALS
Velar Nasal
• From the map on the previous page, we saw that roughly half
of the world’s languages completely lack a velar nasal
• Of the languages which do have a velar nasal, many only
permit velar nasals in coda position.
• No real theoretical claim can be made about this distribution.
• Note the following areal distributions:
• Velar nasals in both onset and coda are the norm in Southeast
Asia and are quite common in Africa
• Altaic languages (spoken in Central Asia) allow velar nasal onsets
• Western European languages and Eastern Native American
languages typically lack velar nasals.
Front Rounded Vowels
• Examples of front rounded vowels include: [y, Y, ø, œ, æ, a]
• English lacks these vowels.
• Note that English also lacks back vowels (except for ɑ as in
• There’s a perceptual reason for this. Basically rounding
correlates with backness and unrounding correlates with
Front Rounded Vowels from
Front Rounded Vowels
• As seen on the map, most languages lack front rounded
vowels entirely
• It appears that most of the languages which have front
rounded vowels are not closely related (ex. French, Albanian,
Mandarin, and Turkish)
• The retention of front rounded vowels can be attributed to
faithfulness and the disappearance or lack of front rounded
vowels can be attributed to markedness.
• Take 313 next semester to learn more about this issue.
One last thing
• Making empirical claims about language universals relies on
detailed descriptions of hundreds of languages.
• Of the 6000 or so languages spoken at the present, more than
50% are believed to become extinct by the end of the 21st
century. The last living speaker of an endangered language
dies approximately every two weeks.
• Extensive language documentation at the present is necessary
not only for the study of theoretical linguistics, but also to
preserve records of our diverse world heritage.