Academic journal article Linguistic Discovery

Aspects of the Diachronic (In)stability of Complex Morphology

Academic journal article Linguistic Discovery

Aspects of the Diachronic (In)stability of Complex Morphology

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The cross-linguistic study of morphological structure has a long and rich tradition that is connected to the very beginnings of language typology. Proposals going back to the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century (cf. e.g. Ramat 2010, 16-17, Plank 2001) have survived remarkably well into modern-day typology (see e.g. Aikhenvald 2007 for a modern version), which can be seen as a tribute to quality of the the early work in morphological typology. A good deal of knowledge about diachronic morphological change has been built up over the years, including studies of processes of desyntactization and dephonologization give rise to morphology (see e.g. Bybee 1985, 1995, Joseph 2003, Helmbrecht 2004, Anderson 2014 and references in these publications), and frequency-driven attrition leading to the loss of morphology (see e.g. Bybee 2001 and references therein). However, much less is known about the relative diachronic stability of particular morphological (sub)systems, and to what extent that stability is consistent in different parts of the world. This lack of knowledge of relative stability is a point that can be made more generally about language structure. There is no widely accepted list of structural characteristics that are highly resistant to change equivalent to the Swadesh list for the lexicon (Swadesh 1971). A more particularly morphological problem is that many analytical problems still surround the notion of word (see e.g. Dixon & Aikhenvald 2002, Schiering et al. 2010, Haspelmath 2011, Anderson 2014) and morphological language profiles (e.g. Fortescue 1994, Bickel & Nichols 2007). A third complicating factor is that the dynamics of linguistic diversity, and the many factors that may influence these dynamics remain very elusive, in spite of a lively research agenda (e.g. Nichols 1992, Nettle 1999a, Bickel 2007, Evans & Levinson 2009). (2)

A number of chapters in the World Atlas of Language Structures Online (Dryer & Haspelmath, eds. 2013) suggest certain tendencies for different aspects of the diachrony of morphological systems. For instance, Bickel & Nichols (2013a) discussing inflectional synthesis, conclude that "especially outside Africa and Australia, the distribution is geographically very uneven. In particular, Eurasia is dominated by low-synthesis languages and the Americas (especially North America) by high-synthesis languages". Further morphologically oriented chapters of WALS which appear to show geographically skewed morphological patterns are Baerman & Brown 2013 on case syncretism, which is particularly frequent in Eurasian languages, isolating and non-linear tendencies in inflection in northern Africa (Bickel & Nichols 2013b), prefixing morphology in southern Africa and North America (Dryer 2103), locus of marking shows very few dependent-marking languages in the Americas (Nichols & Bickel 2013). This begs the question why the distribution of at least some morphological patterns tends to show areally skewed patterns.

The purpose of this special issue is to bring together specialists of different areas and/or language families to shed their light on the development of morphology in different circumstances. In order to make the different areal and genealogical perspectives more comparable we have chosen to focus on situations where complex morphology is involved. Moreover, because the main locus of morphological complexity in morphologically complex languages is often the verb, we also chose to focus on verbs. The different contributions to the special issue will be introduced briefly at the end of this introductory paper.

In this introduction I illustrate in very broad strokes some of the major recurring issues in the different contributions, discussing some of the challenges to do with the diachrony of morphological systems, relating to language contact (section 3), deep-time retention of structural patterns (section 4), and issues in the analysis of morphological structures (section 5). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.