[Colloquium] From synchronically-oriented typology to source-oriented typology: Typological universals in diachronic perspective

Event Date: 

Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm

Event Location: 

  • South Hall 3605
In spite of the fundamentally diachronic orientation of Greenberg’s work, typological universals and explanations thereof usually refer to synchronic cross-linguistic patterns, not the actual diachronic processes that give rise to these patterns in individual languages. Over the past decades, a number of typologists have raised the point that explanations of individual patterns should be based on these processes, rather than the patterns in themselves (Bybee 1988, 2006, 2008; Aristar 1991). This paper examines different types of cross-linguistic data on the diachronic development of various patterns described by some major typological universals pertaining to the encoding of number distinctions, alignment systems, and hierarchical alignment. The data challenge existing generalizations about the relevant patterns in two major ways.
First, individual patterns are usually explained in terms of general principles related to the synchronic properties of the pattern, for example economy. Yet, these principles do not appear to play any obvious role in the actual diachronic processes that give rise to the pattern. These processes are rather motivated in terms of the properties of often highly specialized source constructions.
Second, individual patterns are usually assumed to reflect a single overarching principle, but they are actually a combined result of several independent diachronic processes, which may not be obviously amenable to a unified explanation.
These facts call for a shift in perspective in typological research. Most typological generalizations are result-oriented, in the sense that the development of particular cross-linguistic patterns is assumed to be motivated in terms of their synchronic properties. A thorough understanding of these patterns, however, requires a source-oriented approach where qualitative and quantitative data are taken into account about what constructions actually give rise to what patterns, in what contexts, and through what mechanisms. This approach has a parallel, for example, in Evolutionary Phonology (e.g. Blevins 2004, 2008).
Aristar, A. R. (1991). On diachronic sources and synchronic patterns: an investigation into the origin of linguistic universals. Language 67, 1–33.
Blevins, J. (2004). Evolutionary phonology: the emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Blevins, J. (2008). Consonant Epenthesis: Natural and Unnatural Histories. In J. Good (Ed.), Linguistic Universals and Language Change, pp. 79–107. Oxford: Oxford University.
Bybee, J. (1988). The diachronic dimension in explanation. In J. A. Hawkins (Ed.), Explaining language universals, pp. 350–79. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Bybee, J. (2006). Language change and universals. In R. Mairal and J. Gil (Eds.), Linguistic Universals, pp. 179–94. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Bybee, J. (2008). Formal Universals as Emergent Phenomena: The Origins of Structure Preservation. In J. Good (Ed.), Linguistic Universals and Language Change, pp. 108–21. Oxford: Oxford University.