Abstract - Blasi, Bickel

Course: Language change and typological distributions in cross-disciplinary perspective

Instructor: Damian Blasi and Balthasar Bickel

In this course we investigate the factors and mechanisms that shape languages over time and explain typological distributions. Rather than appealing to language-internal concepts (such as lenition, markedness or harmony) we draw on a number of diverse disciplines (ranging from neuroscience to anthropology and genetics) to discover how linguistic structure responds to external pressures that can be empirically observed and statistically analyzed. 

Damien Blasi Balthasar Bickel

Prerequisites and expected knowledge: a good background in linguistics and strong interdisciplinary interests, While the course involves discussing results through the lens of statistics, in principle no statistical background is required.

Monday November 27th: Rethinking language change and typological distributions

We start with a profile of how linguistics has tackled the issue of language change in the past, pondering strengths and noting pitfalls. We specifically discuss potential pitfalls associated with  traditional notions like  “natural change”, “universal”, or “linguistic area”, and  discuss the need of moving away from categorical distinctions in language change towards predictive models and observable quantities. We introduce some recent development in methods (such as Bayesian phylogenetic inference) that increase the scope of the questions we can ask about language change and typological distributions.

Tuesday November 28th: The speech apparatus

In this lecture we explore the consequences of considering the speech apparatus as a biomechanical complex for the study of language change. We briefly review the basic ideas from the laboratory phonology literature and then move to recent work that has integrated insights from other disciplines, such as genetics, biological anthropology and behavioral ecology.  

Thursday November 30th: The brain

Here we review theories of how specific biases in language processing trigger adaptations in how morphology and syntax evolve. We focus specifically on recent work  on patterns in language change that affects affixation patterns, case marking, and recursive phrase structure and that integrates evidence from the neurophysiology of language processing.

Friday December 1st: Universals, exceptions and probabilities

A common question that comes up in natural explanations of language change is what to do with exceptions, especially cases where arguably dysfunctional phenomena persist over long time. We will discuss various approaches here, such as theories that assume competing motivations, random change and small effect sizes, sociolinguistic confounds, or differences in transmission and learning mechanisms.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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