An evolutionary approach to the typology of functional expressions

Foredrag ved Jürgen Bohnemeyer, University at Buffalo – SUNY.

Jürgen Bohnemeyer er ph.d. fra Universiteit van Tilburg i Holland på en afhandling om tidslige relationer i diskurs baseret på en undersøgelse af et maya-sprog. Efter en årrække ved Max Planck-instituttet for Psykolingvistik i Nijmegen, Holland, har han siden 2003 være først adjunkt og lektor, så professor ved University at Buffalo i staten New York i USA. Blandt hans forskningsområder er sprogtypologi, kognitiv lingvistik, Maya-sprog og andre nordamerikanske sprog, event-repræsentation og den sproglige kodning af rum. Bohnemeyer er medredaktør af tidsskrifterne Language og Cognitive Semantics.

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Abstract

This paper starts with a typological puzzle: some functional expressions – e.g., expressions of negation, demonstratives, pro-forms, quantificational and modal expressions – are near-universally present in the languages of the world, whereas others, including definite articles and the traditional inflectional categories of tense, gender, case, and so on – vary drastically in their presence, each type occurring very roughly in between one third and two thirds of human languages only. Why is this? I argue that the answer lies in distinct communicative functions: the near-universally available expressions serve to encode parts of the speaker’s intended message, whereas the more variably-distributed expressions have an ancillary function in facilitating the hearer’s inferences about the speaker’s communicative intent. This view aligns with Boye & Harder’s (2012) theory of the role of ‘discourse prominence’ in grammaticalization. However, I propose a classification of functional expressions into seven types that takes into account, in addition to discourse prominence, semiotic and combinatorial properties encapsulated in a semantic type system and a speech-act-level distinction of communicative functions. Unlike Boye & Harder’s theory, this classification allows for the possibility that discourse-prominent expressions such as demonstratives, pronouns, adpositions, and modals nevertheless have functional status.

The second part of the paper looks at the mechanism that is responsible for the distinct communicative functions resulting in the observable differences in typological distribution. I propose to add an evolutionary module to grammaticalization theory that accounts for the grammaticalization of communicatively redundant functional expressions in languages in which the absence of competing devices creates a niche to which they provide an adaptation. This model builds on Croft’s (2000) theory of language change as an evolutionary process, but diverges from Croft’s approach by including a mechanism for functional selection/adaption, whereas Croft’s theory allows exclusively for social factors driving selection. I then discuss evidence in support of the evolutionary add-on to grammaticalization theory from a variety of corpus-based, psycholinguistic, and typological studies, including Bohnemeyer (2000) and Evers (2020).

References

Bohnemeyer, J. (2000).  Event order in language and cognition. In H. de Hoop and T. van der Wouden (eds.), Linguistics in the Netherlands 17. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1–16.

Boye, K. & P. Harder. (2012). A usage-based theory of grammaticalization and grammatical status. Language 88(1): 1-44.

Croft, W. (2000). Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Evers, S. (2020). To ‘the’ or not to ‘the’: Cross-linguistic correlations between existing morphosyntax and the emergence of definite articles. Doctoral dissertation, University at Buffalo.