Historical linguistics blog - even weekends

2019 > 01

This week's blogpost will continue the thread about grammatical reconstruction, with some thoughts on lineage versus areality in grammar change. 

In general, change of grammar is supposedly cyclic (or spiralic according to some researchers): over time, typological organization of features in systems recur of are re-established. We may look at this issue both from a long-term and a short term perspective. One thing for a feature is the inherent possibility to be homologous (a simirlarity may depend on inheritance only) or homoplastic (a similarity may depend on internal or areal pressure, caused by various factors). Another thin is whether a similarity is caused by areal pressure or whether it is caused by lineage. A construction or a feature may be indicative of all of all these processes. For instance, a feature like word order is by nature homoplastic (similarities in word order may be due to areal or internal pressure, such as change in order of meaningful elements), but even then, a word order feature may be due to lineage: it has been inherited by ancestry generation after generation, or it is a critial innovation restricted to a specific sub-branch of a tree. Take for instance the verb-initial order in Celtic languages: it is likely that this feature is caused by interal pressure in the verbal paradigm (McCone 1987). Because of this, verb-initiality is a features which is restricted to the Celtic sub-branch and therefore a homologuous innovation of this specific branch, not caused by areal pressure. The feature is entirely independent of other Eurasian verb-initiality. Another example is the Germanic have-perfect. It is a homoplastic typological feature (expressing perfect by an auxiliary construction), which still uses the same cognate root as the auxiliary, the verb *haban. The process took place independently in all Germanic languages, due to parallel drift and possible areal pressure. As before, it is difficult to distinguish areality from lineage.

Very interesting is the process of Indo-European alignment change, from the proto-language to the daughter branches. It is quite evident that the reconstructed language bears morphological traces of a semantic-based system, similar to active-stative systems, as has been suggested by several scholars (Bauer 2000). But does it mean that Proto-Indo-European was an active language? Probably not. This concerns the question of stability of systems in general versus language-internal variation in tendencies to other systems. Indo-European alignment took three pathways of change, towards ergativity in the South-East, nautral marking in the West, and a preservation of the ancient system in between (roughly). What is the areal pressure component here, and what changes are dependent on internal procedures in languages, and what is the role of the residual morphology? These are questions that remain to be answered. 

McCone, Kim (1987), The early Irish verb (Kildare: Maynooth). 
Bauer, Brigitte (2000), Archaic syntax in Indo-European : the spread of transitivity in Latin and French (Trends in linguistics. Studies and monographs, 99-0115958-X ; 125; Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter).
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Berthold Delbrück (1842-1922) Berthold Delbrück (1842-1922)
The current post is about something that I am involved in right now: the reconstruction of grammar. In comparative linguistics, grammar can be reconstructed to a proto-language on the basis of the forms and functions in daughter languages. For instance, if there is a dative case in several languages with a specific marker that can be reconstructed to the joint proto-language, and this form has the function of dative in all languages, then it is also likely the the function of this marker was a dative also in the proto-language. However, the reality is often much more complex than that. Often, the function of a marker is different in various daughter languages: in our case above, we may have genitive or ablative instead of dative, and since we don't know if a genitive is more likely to become a dative or the other way round, we cannot reconstruct a the original, proto-language function of this specific marker. The problem is known as the "correspondence problem" and is a matter of controversy in syntactic reconstruction in general (Roberts 2007) (see picture below). 
The issue is particularly prominent in the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European syntax, where many categories of the ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Greek, are absent in Anatolian, which, on the other hand, has a high number of other categories considered to be highly archaic.

In recent years, scholars have tried to approach this problem by using evolutionary and phylogenetic methods (Marutis and Griffith 2014, Dunn et al 2014, Cathcart et al 2018). The probability of presence of a specific feature at ancestral nodes is estimated, based on gains (1 -> o) and losses (0 -> 1) of features over a reference tree (lexical or hand-crafted). As expected, the method requires some adjustment to get reliable and reproducable results. One of them is to treat grammatical properties as logically dependent (which is a very tricky and complex matter), the other one is to use ancestry and clade constraints of trees, in order to avoid unecessary noice in the results.

However, even if evolutionary and phylogenetic methods are much more sophisticated than traditional methods in terms of amounts of data and number of calculations, the principle of the programs is based on the same problem as observed in the correspondence problem. If most of the daughter languages have specific property, then it is likely that this property was there also in the proto-language. If there is a rooted outgroup with another function, then the probability of presence of this function at the proto-language state is increased.

Currently, I am working with a dataset for Indo-European, which reconstructs probabilites of grammatical features to be present at the ancestral state of Proto-Indo-European (statistics has been performed by Chundra Cathcart, University of Zurich). The results are astonishing: with very few exceptions, the program reconstructs high probabilities for grammar features that were reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European by the Neogrammarians (Brugmann & Delbrück 1893, 1897, 1900). The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European grammar by the Neogrammarians was done before the discovery of Hittite and Tocharian, which changed the preconditions for the typological reconstruction of the proto-language grammar to a high degree. Even if Tocharian and Anatolian is there in the data, this does not change the Neogrammarian reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European grammar. I will have reason to come back to this issue in further blogposts.  

References:
Brugmann, Karl, Delbrück, Berthold, and Delbrück, Berthold (1893), Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen : kurzgefasste Darstellung der Geschichte des Altindischen, Altiranischen (Avestischen u. Altpersischen), Altarmenischen, Altgriechischen, Albanesischen, Lateinischen, Oskisch-Umbrischen, Altirischen, Gotischen, Althochdeutschen, Litauischen und Altkirchenslavischen. Bd 3, Vergleichende Syntax der indogermanischen Sprachen, T. 1 (Strassburg: Trübner).
--- (1897), Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen : kurzgefasste Darstellung der Geschichte des Altindischen, Altiranischen (Avestischen u. Altpersischen), Altarmenischen, Altgriechischen, Albanesischen, Lateinischen, Oskisch-Umbrischen, Altirischen, Gotischen, Althochdeutschen, Litauischen und Altkirchenslavischen. Bd 4, Vergleichende Syntax der indogermanischen Sprachen, T. 2 (Strassburg: Trübner).
--- (1900), Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen : kurzgefasste Darstellung der Geschichte des Altindischen, Altiranischen (Avestischen u. Altpersischen), Altarmenischen, Altgriechischen, Albanesischen, Lateinischen, Oskisch-Umbrischen, Altirischen, Gotischen, Althochdeutschen, Litauischen und Altkirchenslavischen. Bd 5, Vergleichende Syntax der indogermanischen Sprachen, T. 3 (Strassburg: Trübner).
Cathcart, Chundra, et al. (2018), 'Areal pressure in grammatical evolution.', Diachronica, 35 (1), 1-34.
Dunn, Michael, et al. (2017), 'Dative Sickness: A Phylogenetic Analysis of Argument Structure Evolution in Germanic', Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America, 93 (1), e1-e22.
Harris, Alice C. and Campbell, Lyle (1995), Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective (Cambridge studies in linguistics, 0068-676X ; 74; Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press).
Maurits, Luke and Griffiths, Thomas L. (2014), 'Tracing the roots of syntax with Bayesian phylogenetics', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(37), 13576-81.
Roberts, Ian G. (2007), Diachronic syntax (Oxford textbooks in linguistics, 99-2380132-2; Oxford: Oxford University Press).
The principle of evolutionary reconstruction. Gains and losses are measured against a reference tree (lexical/hand-crafted), resulting is a probability of presence at ancestral nodes.
The principle of evolutionary reconstruction. Gains and losses are measured against a reference tree (lexical/hand-crafted), resulting is a probability of presence at ancestral nodes.
Representation of the correspondence problem. In the figure at the top, A is more likely than B, but in the figure below, B is more likely, despite A being more frequent. This principle is applied by evolutionary methods.
Representation of the correspondence problem. In the figure at the top, A is more likely than B, but in the figure below, B is more likely, despite A being more frequent. This principle is applied by evolutionary methods.
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