Tuesday, July 25, 2017

More on similarities in linguistics

In an earlier blogpost I discussed various reasons for similarity of certain traits in languages. I emphasized four major reasons for similarities, for example, in the lexicon of languages: coincidence, natural reasons, inheritance, and contact (see also List 2014: 55f and Aikhenvald 2007: 5). Despite the problems of distinguishing inherited from borrowed traits, which I called historical reasons for similarity, controlling for coincidence and history can often be done in a rather straightforward way. Coincidence can be called by applying a frequency criterion: if certain similarities are extremely spurious, they are usually due to chance. Historical similarities can be detected with the help of classical methods for language comparison. If, using these methods, we know, for example, that two or more languages are genetically related or have been developing in close contact with each other, then we will usually assume that shared traits among them are due to their shared history.

The third group of similarities, on the other hand, which I called natural, is a bit more difficult to interpret, since it is not entirely clear what "natural" means in this context. My earlier example was the word for "mother", which in many languages is expressed as "mama", similar to "father", which is often expressed as "papa", even in languages where we know that they are not related. or only extremely distantly related (if we assume that language was only invented once), and will thus be acquired rather early by children.

In the case of "mama" and "papa", we can blame our articulatory apparatus, which makes sounds like [m], [p], and [a] very easy to pronounce for all humans, no matter where and in which time they are born. Calling this "nature" is probably justified, given that pronouncability is not per se characteristic for language as a general means of complex communication. In sign languages, for example, pronouncability does not play any role, as those languages are never pronounced, but expressed with the help of gestures. But even in sign languages, we also find cross-linguistic similarities, which seem to be independent of coincindence or history: body parts, for example, are often expressed iconically, e.g., by pointing to them (see Woodward 1993 for details).

However, not all of those similarities between languages that are not due to history or coincidence are necessarily due to our articulation apparatus. We can think of many different reasons for cross-linguistic similarities, such as, for example, innate settings of the human brain, or global similarities of the environment in which humans live. In the past, colleagues have occasionally pointed out to me the heterogeneity of this class of "natural" similarities. When trying to further subdivide them, the former could be called "similarities due to cognition", while the latter could be called "similarities due to environment". But neither of these two groups seems to be quite satisfying, as we do not really know the relation between environment and cognition. We may also assume that there is a certain influence between the two, and depending on where we draw the border, we would either subscribe to a predominantly Aristotelian viewpoint, where we assign the predominant role to the environment, or a Platonic viewpoint, where we assign it to the innate "ideas" which are given to us along with our brain.

As an example for the difficulty of distinguishing different sources of "natural" similarity, let us have a look at how languages of the world express a fixed set of concepts. In a very simplistic view, given only two things we want to express, for instance the concept "hand" and the concept "arm", we can ask whether a given language will use the same or different words as a rule. English, for example, uses two different words, namely hand and arm, and so does German (Hand and Arm), while Russian uses only one word, ruka, to refer to both concepts in most situations (in Russian, there is another word kist', which can be used to denote "hand", but it is rarely used). We can say that Russian ruka is polysemous, since the word form has at least two meanings. A better way of expressing this is to say that Russian colexifies "hand" and "arm" (François 2008), since the term polysemy has a specific usage in linguistics, referring to words expressing multiple meanings that should be "conceptually close" or "developed from semantic change", which is an extremely vague definition that further requires us to know the history of a given word form and the development of its meanings.

Cross-linguistically, the colexification of "arm" and "hand", i.e. that many languages tend to use a single word to denote both concepts, occurs extremely often in the languages of the world; so often that we can rule out that the use of one word for two concepts is due to coincidence (compare the colexifications of "arm" in the CLICS database by List et al. 2014 through this link). Given that the colexification recurs also in different language families spoken in different regions of the world, we can further rule out historical reasons. This leaves us with the heterogeneous class of "natural reasons for similarities". But what kind of natural similarities are we dealing with here? Are they cognitive? They surely are in some sense, as we can say that humans have good reasons to consider the hand and the arm as one continuous part of their body.

But this continuity is also given by the structure of our body, which itself is given independently of our perception. One could argue that our perception grounds in our bodily experience, but if we look further into other frequent colexifications, e.g. between "dark" and "black" (this occurs in more than 20 language families, see here), as well as "bright" and "white" (occurs in three language families, see here), our perception is less dependent on our body but more on the environment in which we experience darkness and brightness, since most humans have eyesight and do not live entirely in caves.

It is some kind of the egg-hen problem of who was there first, and the more I think about it, I prefer to avoid giving any clear-cut preference to either the egg nor the hen. We can obviously try to make a more fine-grained distinction between different kinds of non-historical and non-coincidental similarities between languages, but unless psychologists and cognitive scientists solve general problems of perception and environment, it seems that, at least for the moment, "natural similarities" is explicit enough as a term to describe universal patterns in the languages of the world.

  • François, A. (2008) Semantic maps and the typology of colexification: intertwining polysemous networks across languages. In: Vanhove, M. (ed.): From polysemy to semantic change. Benjamins: Amsterdam. 163-215.
  • List, J.-M., T. Mayer, A. Terhalle, and M. Urban (eds.) (2014) CLICS: Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications. Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas: Marburg. http://www.webcitation.org/6ccEMrZYM.
  • List, J.-M., M. Cysouw, and R. Forkel (2016) Concepticon. A resource for the linking of concept lists. In: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, 2393-2400.
  • Woodward, J. (1993) Lexical evidence for the existence of South Asian and East Asian sign language families. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 4.2: 91-107.

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