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The Development of Verb-Initial Structures Cross-linguistically: Insights from Austroasiatic

English title The Development of Verb-Initial Structures Cross-linguistically: Insights from Austroasiatic
Applicant Jenny Mathias
Number 176264
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Seminar für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Other languages and literature
Start/End 01.02.2018 - 31.01.2021
Approved amount 701'571.00
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Keywords (5)

Austroasiatic languages; Comparative syntax; Syntactic development; Areal linguistics; Word order typology

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
Verb-initiale Strukturen sind selten in den Sprachen der Welt, was durch verschiedene Faktoren der Kognition und Sprachverarbeitung erklärt wird. Trotzdem finden sich verb-initiale Sätze oder Formen in einer Anzahl austroasiatischer Sprachen in Süd- und Südostasien, vor allem in solchen, die von kleineren Gruppen gesprochen werden und kaum standardisiert sind. Die Frage, wie solche Strukturen entstehen bzw. erhalten bleiben ist von grossem Interesse in der Forschung zur Sprachevolution und -verarbeitung.
Lay summary

Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts

Während die Wortstellung in einer Sprache leicht durch Kontakteinfluss oder pragmatische Variation verändert werden kann, sind nur wenige Fälle bekannt, in denen eine Sprache von verb-medial oder verb-final zu verb-initial gewechselt hat. Da verb-initiale Strukturen in austroasiatischen Sprachen in vielen Fällen auftreten wo kein äusserer Einfluss als Ursache für einen möglichen Wandel ausgemacht werden kann, gehen wir davon aus, dass es sich hier um alte ererbte Konstruktionen handelt. Dafür spricht einerseits die Tatsache, dass man die betreffenden Strukturen in peripheren Sprachen findet, die generell konservativer sind als grosse Sprachen, andererseits dass die verb-initialen Konstruktionen in einigen Sprachen in Teilen der Grammatik auftreten, die sich am langsamsten verändern (Nebensätze, Morphologie). Um ein besseres Bild der Verteilung der verb-initialen Ausdrücke in der Familie sowie in den Einzelsprachen zu bekommen, stützt sich die Forschung im Projekt auf Texte, die teilweise im Druck vorhanden sind und digitalisiert und annotiert werden müssen, teilweise in Feldforschung neu erhoben werden. Die Befunde aus der Textanalyse in verschiedenen austroasiatischen Sprachen lassen Rückschlüsse über die Entwicklung von Wortstellungsvariation im Allgemeinen zu und leisten damit einen Beitrag zur typologischen Sprachforschung.

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext

Das Projekt beschäftigt sich vornehmlich mit austroasiatischen Sprachen, einer historisch wichtigen, aber wenig erforschten Sprachfamilie in Asien. Neben Erkenntnissen in Sprachentwicklung und Sprachkontakt werden durch den Aufbau extensiver Korpora auch Daten einer breiteren Forschergemeinschaft zugänglich gemacht, die bisher kaum in die linguistische Forschung einbezogen werden konnten.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 05.10.2017

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Employees

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
150136 The Greater Burma Zone - a transitional zone of languages and peoples 01.03.2014 Project funding (Div. I-III)

Abstract

In linguistics, the verb is traditionally considered to be the core element of the clause, and its core status is emphasized in psycho- and neurolinguistic research as well as being the basis of many theories on the syntax/semantic interface (see Levin & Rappaport-Hovav 2005 for an overview). At the same time, basic verb-initial (V1) word order reportedly occurs in only ca. 10-19% of the world's languages (c.f. Dryer 2013, Clemens & Polinsky to appear). Explanations for this may come from recent experiments and large-scale comparisons, which show that V1 sequences in natural languages violate apparent cognitive or processing biases on at least three levels: information structure (“????? before ??? principle”; Chafe 1994, Lambrecht 1994, Junge et al. 2015), dependency (“dependency length minimization”; Hawkins 2004, Newmeyer 2005, Futrell et al. 2015), and parsing (“Actor-first”; cf. Choudhary 2010).This research suggests that V1 structures are dispreferred cross-linguistically since a V1 language will necessarily violate at least two of these biases. However, 10% (or more) of the world’s languages translates to quite a large number of languages that have V1 structures, and such languages can have quite stable word order. Further, the extremely robust Actor-first bias does not seem to apply in V1 sentences (Schlesewsky & Bornkessel 2006, Bickel et al. 2015), suggesting the possibility of a (not yet identified) driving force that counteracts the Actor-first preference. The most likely way to identify such a force is to trace the evolution of V1 structures in the history of language families and to compare the findings to specific effects of horizontal transfer (areal skewings), universal drifts, and chance. Word order is highly prone to change, from both internal (i.e. reanalysis, pragmatics) and external (i.e. areal and contact) influence (Harris & Campbell 1995, Aikhenvald & Dixon 2007), so all possible factors need to be considered. Accordingly, this project takes a broad, corpus-based approach to study the evolution and distribution of V1 structures in Austroasiatic (AA) languages, which are of particular interest for the study of V1 configurations (Jenny et al. 2014). We then compare the findings with V1 structures in other language families to investigate V1 development (as e.g. in Insular Celtic, Modern Welsh), V1 maintenance (e.g. AA, Austronesian, Modern Irish), and V1 loss (e.g. Afroasiatic, western Austronesian, Modern Breton, Middle Welsh). This project focuses on AA languages from the Khasian, Palaungic, Nicobarese, Aslian, and Katuic groups, namely because: 1) they exhibit V1 patterns to different degrees and in different structures, 2) the V1 patterns cannot be explained as result of language contact, and 3) they are spoken on the periphery of the AA area as local rather than state languages.This last point (3) is particularly salient, since peripheral (residual) languages are expected to be more conservative (and thus more likely to contribute to reconstruction) than central (or “spread”) languages (Nichols 1992, Dixon 1997; but cf. Celtic and Tocharian). These peripheral languages are understudied, so we are more likely to gain new insight into the effects and development of V1 structures. The inability to explain these structures through language contact (point 2) means we must consider a diachronic source. The range of word orders in these languages (point 1) means that we can more likely account for V1 features diachronically, particularly since they are from the same tree. This in turn will give us indications of likely developmental pathways of word order for other language phyla and families.The basic question we are asking is: “what V1 structures do we find where and when, what motivates their existence, and how are they maintained, developed, or lost?” Secondary questions are: “how does verb-initiality interact with or motivate subsystems of grammar?”, and “to what degree do languages differ with regard to V1 structures?” These are difficult questions, particularly due to the complexity of the research, what is known of the languages, and the history of the areas under study.
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