linguistics blog

2019 > 10

Density heatmaps indicating the frequency of languages as source (y) and target (x) language in loan events, by their ranking in a Language Power Index rank.
Density heatmaps indicating the frequency of languages as source (y) and target (x) language in loan events, by their ranking in a Language Power Index rank.

A study in PLOS ONE shows that borrowing is hierchical: borrowings are most likely to take place from a more prestigious language to a less prestigious one. In addition, borrowing is caused by increased cultural labour intensity.

All languages borrow words from other languages. Some languages are more prone to borrowing, while others borrow less, and different domains of the vocabulary are unequally susceptible to borrowing. Languages typically borrow words when a new concept is introduced, but languages may also borrow a new word for an already existing concept. Linguists describe two causalities for borrowing: need, i.e., the internal pressure of borrowing a new term for a concept in the language, and prestige, i.e., the external pressure of borrowing a term from a more prestigious language. We investigate lexical loans in a dataset of 104 concepts in 115 Eurasian languages from 7 families occupying a coherent contact area of the Eurasian landmass, of which Indo-European languages from various periods constitute a majority. We use a cognacy-coded dataset, which identifies loan events including a source and a target language. To avoid loans for newly introduced concepts in languages, we use a list of lexical concepts that have been in use at least since the Chalcolithic (4000–3000 BCE). We observe that the rates of borrowing are highly variable among concepts, lexical domains, languages, language families, and time periods. We compare our results to those of a global sample and observe that our rates are generally lower, but that the rates between the samples are significantly correlated. To test the causality of borrowing, we use two different ranks. Firstly, to test need, we use a cultural ranking of concepts by their mobility (of nature items) or their labour intensity and “distance-from-hearth” (of culture items). Secondly, to test prestige, we use a power ranking of languages by their socio-cultural status. We conclude that the borrowability of concepts increases with increasing mobility (nature), and with increased labour intensity and “distance-from-hearth” (culture). We also conclude that language prestige is not correlated with borrowability in general (all languages borrow, independently of prestige), but prestige predicts the directionality of borrowing, from a more prestigious language to a less prestigious one. The process is not constant over time, with a larger inequality during the ancient and modern periods, but this result may depend on the status of the data (non-prestigious languages often remain unattested). In conclusion, we observe that need and prestige compete as causes of lexical borrowing.

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On October 25-26, all Tocharian specialists of the world gather in Vienna, Austria. Only a few years ago, these conferences would fit in an elevator; now, there are 30 participants, which is a huge improvement: the field is growing rapidly in terms of project funding and researchers. There are two Tocharian languages, A and B, and both are traditionally understudied. Collections of manuscripts are found mainly in Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg and there are several ongoin projects which aim to catalogue, organize, digitize, edit and translate these collections. These projects report on their ongoing work.
In sum, there are three larger, database- and dictionary projects, which report on ongoing research, improvements and plans for databases, caloguing, text editions, and publications.
  • Currnetly, the most important program fro Tocharian is CEToM in Vienna (Melanie Malzahn, Hannes Fellner, Bernhard Koller, and others), which aims to digitize, edit, translate, and tag all Tocharian texts. Bernhard Koller and Martin Braun report on future changes in the system, which will improve the search functions and the speed of the database, as well as expansions of their dictionary and tagging. Future plans include a complete tagging of all texts as well as an online etymological dictionary. Hannes Fellner and Bernard Koller report from the new paleography project of Tarim Brahmi, which will measure the development of the writing system of Tocharian and adjacent languages.
  • Another important landmark in Tocharian philology is the new ERC-funded Paris project HisTochText, which aims to catalogue , edit and publish all Tocharian and Sanskrit texts from Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris (Georges-Jean Pinault, Athanaric Huard).
  • I report from my project CeDICT - A Comprehensive e-Dicitonary of Tocharian A, which has been completed and will appear soon in the form of an electronic database and a paper dictionary.

In addition, we have reports from other projects with the aim to research various aspects of Tocharian peoples, language, and literature.
  • Olav Hackstein and Hiromi Bata report from the DFG-funded projekts: "Die Legende vom Leben des Buddha in tocharischen Texten" and "Jātaka and Avadāna texts in West and East Tocharian: An interdisciplinary analysis of the Central Asian transmission".
  • Chams Bernard and Louise Friis give us new results from the Leiden projects "The Tocharian Trek" (ERC) and "Tracking the Tocharians from Europe to China" (NWO). This group performs important new research about contacts and loans of Tocharian on the way between the Indo-European homeland and Xinjiang, for instance in relation to Iranian, Samoyed, and Uralic languages.
  • Olga Lundysheva gives an overview of the inventory, cataloguing, scanning and publication plans of the St. Petersburg manuscripts in Tocharian.
Other interesting presentations on morphology, syntax, metrics, and etymologies of various lexemes are presented by Tao Pan, Alessandro Del Tomba, Adam Catt, Dieter Gunkel, Christoph Bross, and Teigo Onishi.
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The large Scandinavian languages, such as Swedish and Danish, have lost their three-gender system to a system of commune and neuter. However, several smaller dialects or languages, such as Jamtlandic and Elfdalian, have preserved the system of three genders. In a new study from our research group, by Briana Van Epps and me, we investigate the assignment principles of gender in Jamtlandic. The dialect indicates an instability of the feminine gender, which is visible, among others, in gender assignment of loanwords.

DOI to the paper (Nordic Journal of Linguistics (2019), 1-33):

AbstractIn this study, we present an analysis of gender assignment tendencies in Jamtlandic, a lan-guage variety of Sweden, using a word list of 1029 items obtained from fieldwork. Mostresearch on gender assignment in the Scandinavian languages focuses on the standard lan-guages (Steinmetz 1985; Källström 1996; Trosterud 2001, 2006) and Norwegian dialects(Enger 2011, Kvinlaug 2011, Enger & Corbett 2012). However, gender assignment prin-ciples for Swedish dialects have not previously been researched. We find generalizationsbased on semantic, morphological, and phonological principles. Some of the principlesapply more consistently than others, some‘win’in competition with other principles; amultinomial logistic regression analysis provides a statistical foundation for evaluatingthe principles. The strongest tendencies are those based on biological sex, plural inflection,derivational suffixes, and some phonological sequences. Weaker tendencies include non-core semantic tendencies and other phonological sequences. Gender assignment inmodern loanwords differs from the overall material, with a larger proportion of nounsassigned masculine gender.
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Dear readers and followers of this blog: from now on, the blog will change its focus and scope. I will not update every second week with blog posts on specific topics. Rather, I will update the blog  with news from our research group as well as other research groups. Stay updated, also on Facebook and Twitter. There will be many interesting topics coming up!
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Continuing my blogposts about gender, I will say a few words about gender stability. Over time, words often change their gender. This is well known, for instance, in Germanic languages, the words for 'sun' and 'moon' are feminine and masculine respectively (as in German die Sonne and der Mond), whereas other branches of Indo-European the situation is the reverse (Italian sole masculine 'sun' and luna feminine 'moon').
The important and interesting thing here is to investigate the reasons for gender stability or instability. Are they connected to a specific gender? Or are they connected to specific words? Or is gender stability a matter of frequency? There are still very few, if no studies that look at gender stability, using large-scale data sets.
If we consider fist the issue of gender instability in our culture data set for Indo-European, we notice that is little difference between the genders when it comes to stability in cognates. We distinguished three classes, cognates with more than 90% same gender (stable class), cognates with between 90-50% same gender (dominant class), and cognates with under 50% same gender (change class). Wee notice that all three genders masculine, feminine, and neuter have approximately the same distribution within the classes stable, dominant and changing gender (see picture below). However, the masculine is slightly overrepresented in the stable group, feminine in the dominant group and neuter in the change group, meaning that the masculine is most stable, feminine a bit less stable, and neuter must untable. However, the differences are small.
What is more interesting though, and probably also promising for future research on gender stability, is that there is a large variation in the stability of different semantic classes. Crops, metals, trees, vegetables, prodcuts, are all highly stable, drink & drugs, small cattle, and tillage, etc and highly unstable. And so forth. If there is a connection to general frequency remains to be controlled for the entire Indo-European family, but a study on gender in Scandinavian languages only (Van Epps, Carling & Sapir 2019), found a correlation between frequency and gender instability.

Van Epps Briana, Gerd Carling & Yair Sapir to appear. “Gender assignment in six North Scandinavian languages: Patterns of variation and change”, to appear in a journal.

Heatmap of frequency of occurrence of various semantic classes in the different categories stable (<90% same gender), dominant (90-50% same gender) and change (<50% same gender)
Heatmap of frequency of occurrence of various semantic classes in the different categories stable (<90% same gender), dominant (90-50% same gender) and change (<50% same gender)
Distributions of the genders masculine, feminine and neuter for the classes stable (<90% same gender), dominant (90-50% same gender) and change (<50% same gender)
Distributions of the genders masculine, feminine and neuter for the classes stable (<90% same gender), dominant (90-50% same gender) and change (<50% same gender)
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