Documenting sociolinguistic variation

James Stanford and John Mansfield have a new paper out about documenting sociolinguistic variation as a core part of language documentation: required reading!

Societies of intimates

The journal Narrative Inquiry has a special issue of papers about narrative in Australian languages. From the introduction:

When the Australian writer Richard Flanagan accepted the 2014 Man Booker Prize for fiction, he said that “As a species it is story that distinguishes us”. While the prize was given for a literary work written in English, Australia and the surrounding regions are replete with a rich diversity of oral traditions, and with stories remembered and told over countless generations and in many languages. In this article we consider both the universality and the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic diversity of various forms of narrative. We explore the question of what a linguistic typology of narrative might look like, and survey some of the literature relevant to this issue. Most specifically, we ask whether some observed differences in narrative style, structure, or delivery could derive from social features of the communities which produce them: their social density, informational homogeneity, and the high degree of common ground they share.

Amazonian linguistic diversity and its sociocultural correlates

by Patience Epps.

Read her chapter here. Despite its focus on non-Australian languages, those interested in Australian topics might find some of what Dr. Epps has to say very interesting. The following is a selection from its first section:

The Amazon basin is one of the most linguistically diverse regions on earth. With some 300 indigenous languages corresponding to over 50 distinct lineages, the diversity of language families in Amazonia is some ten times higher than that of Eurasia and Africa, and is rivalled only by New Guinea.

Explaining these variable patterns of diversity poses a major challenge to scholars of human prehistory. Since South America was the last continent to have undergone extensive human settlement, its linguistic diversity cannot be linked straightforwardly to time-depth of habitation (cf. Nichols 1990, Nettle 1999). Geographic factors are also not an obvious explanation, since South American diversity is concentrated in the lowlands, where natural obstacles are few (both rivers and interfluvial zones are as likely to serve as conduits as they are barriers; cf. Nichols 1992). Nor does an appeal to agriculture as a major reason for language spread provide a clear solution; a comparison of the Amazonian linguistic patchwork (where virtually all groups practice at least small-scale agriculture) to the far-reaching spread of Pama-Nyungan hunter-gatherers in Australia indicates that agriculture is in itself neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for language spread, although it may be implicated in some cases (cf. Bellwood 2001, Heggarty & Beresford-Jones 2010). Continent-internal linguistic distributions present additional puzzles, most notably relating to the concentration of diversity in the west (see e.g. Dahl et al. 2011, who suggests a correlation with initial migration routes), and the non-contiguous distributions of the few language families that are geographically widespread (see e.g. Hornborg 2005 and the papers by Walker and Heckenberger, this volume, on the Arawak diaspora).


The Challenges of Maintaining Indigenous Ecological Knowledge

The Challenges of Maintaining Indigenous Ecological Knowledge

By Joe McCarter, Michael C. Gavin, Sue Baereleo, and Mark Love

Increased interest in indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) has led to concern that it is vulnerable amidst social and ecological change. In response, multiple authors have recommended the establishment of programs for the maintenance and revitalization of IEK systems. However, few studies have analyzed the methods, opportunities, and challenges of these programs. This is a critical gap, as IEK maintenance is challenging and will require layered and evidence-based solutions. We seek to build a foundation for future approaches to IEK maintenance. First, we present a systematic literature review of IEK maintenance programs (n = 39) and discuss the opportunities and challenges inherent in five broad groups of published approaches. Second, we use two case studies from the Republic of Vanuatu to illustrate these challenges in more depth. The first case study takes a community-based approach, which has inherent strengths (e.g., localized organization). It has, however, faced practical (e.g., funding) and epistemological (changing modes of knowledge transmission) challenges. The second case study seeks to facilitate IEK transmission within the formal school system. Although this model has potential, it has faced significant challenges (e.g., lack of institutional linkages). We conclude that supporting and strengthening IEK is important but that serious attention is needed to account for the social, situated, and dynamic nature of IEK.In closing, we use the review and case studies to propose four principles that may guide adaptive and flexible approaches for the future maintenance of IEK systems.

Optionality in grammar

William McGregor: Optionality in grammar and language use
Linguistics. Volume 51, Issue 6, Pages 1147–1204, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/ling-2013-0047, November 2013

This paper investigates optionality in grammar and language use, and argues that there is optionality and optionality, and thus that it is essential that we be much more careful than hitherto in categorizing linguistic entities as optional. Equipped with a suitably constrained construal of the term, it is possible to formulate testable generalizations about optionality. Specifically, it is always meaningful in the sense that the contrast between use and non-use of a given linguistic element conveys meaning; use and non-use are never in absolutely free variation. Furthermore, there are restrictions on the type of meaning associated with the two contrasting paradigmatic “forms”. It is always a type of interpersonal meaning, concerning the domain of joint attention. It is further suggested that the connection between form and meaning is motivated, and thus this represents another domain in which the linguistic sign emerges as non-arbitrary. Evidence for the proposed meaning is presented from case studies of five diverse domains of grammar: complementizers, case markers, definiteness markers, person and number markers, and NP ellipsis. While these case studies only scratch the surface of the range of optional phenomena in the world’s languages, they provide sufficient circumstantial evidence to make an initial case for the proposals; they also raise numerous questions for future investigation.

Language contact in the Torres Strait

Jessica Hunter, Claire Bowern, and Erich Round

The contact history of the languages of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait has been claimed (e.g. by Dixon 2002, Wurm 1972, and others) to have been sufficiently intense as to obscure the genetic relationship of the Western Torres Strait language. Some have argued that it is an Australian (Pama-Nyungan) language, though with considerable influence from the Papuan language Meryam Mir (the Eastern Torres Strait language). Others have claimed that the Western Torres language is, in fact, a genetically Papuan language, though with substantial Australian substrate or adstrate influence. Much has been made of phonological structures which have been viewed as unusual for Australian languages. In this paper we examine the evidence for contact claims in the region. We review aspects of the phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait languages with an eye to identifying areal influence. This larger data pool shows that the case for intense contact has been vastly overstated. Beyond some phonological features and some loan words, there is no linguistic evidence for intense contact; moreover, the phonological features adduced to be evidence of contact are also found to be not specifically Papuan, but part of a wider set of features in Australian languages.

Document Type:

DOI: 10.1163/187740911X558798

Correlates of Language Change

Correlates of Language Change in Hunter-Gatherer and other ‘small’ languages

Claire Bowern
Language and Linguistics Compass
Volume 4, Issue 8, pages 665–679, August 2010

I review linguistic and interdisciplinary research on the non-linguistic correlates of language change, particularly as they apply to small populations, highly mobile groups, and hunter-gatherers. I summarize the areas which have been argued to display differences between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, small and large populations, and sedentary and non-sedentary ones, although finding that none of this work is conclusive and much is contradictory. Hunter-gatherer languages in particular have played a prominent role in the development of theories of language change in addition to the comparative method and family trees, but for the wrong reasons, since the comparative method is powerful for diagnosing relationships even in the case of heavy borrowing where tree models are not useful. The field is in great need of systematization, and of incorporating current knowledge about variation and the spread of change with reconstruction over a longer time span.