Introduction, Sally Rice

These two talks focus on phenomena within the Athapaskan or Dene language family, one of the most prolific (in terms of number of individual languages) and recent, yet extensively distributed (in terms of overland, pedestrian migration) Indigenous language families in the Americas. Linguistic properties that, to quote Tony Woodbury, make manifest the “special genius” of the family include a tension between conservative and innovative tendencies, both of which are on display within individual languages and across the family. Among the conservativizing forces are an exceptionally small stem inventory (and a large number of cognates), a somewhat unique prefixing system that places inflectional material inside of derivational morphological within the polysynthetic verb word, and a very limited set of word-formation strategies. Among the innovating factors are a tendency to fully exploit those limited word-formation options, a tolerance for morphemic order variation within the verb word, and very active relexification and grammaticalization processes. In short, there are only so many ways to skin a cat morphosyntactically in a Dene language, yet individual languages seem to exploit those limited devices and meanings to the hilt. The net result is a feeling––by speakers and linguists––of familiarity yet strangeness when comparing languages across the family.

As interesting as these formal (structural) consistencies and inconsistencies are, it would be a wrong to consider them in the absence of the socio-cultural context in which Dene peoples have existed for the past two millennia or so. I will address aspects of Dene group dynamics (or more particularly, language use) still very much in evidence today: oralcy and an insider-orientation. Both factors may help explain for other language groups how small-scale variation can accrue, leading to wholesale typological diversity.


Monday November 19

TALK 1: Variation writ small: A corpus-based account of variation within a Dene (Athapaskan) speech community

The wide-spread adoption and application of corpus linguistic techniques over the past 30 years and the interrogation of large and varied corpora of major world languages has revealed a number of general findings at odds with assumptions associated with most formal linguistic theories. Some of these findings (none of which are uncontroversial) include demonstrations that:

  • languages aren’t monolithic (modality-, genre-, and speaker-specific differences abound);
  • languages aren’t very compositional (instead, a large number of fixed expressions and pre-compiled multi-word units lacking any particular structural status or straightforward semantic analyzability make up, rather idiomatically, the bulk of utterances (in spoken language) and sentences (in writing);
  • languages aren’t very static (diachronic corpora of even a time depth of 20 years can reveal appreciable changes in linguistic patterning beyond the merely lexical);
  • frequency trumps well-formedness (frequency is a very important contributor to phonological, morphological, and even syntactic variation within a community across like items, some of which resist leveling);
  • sequential order may be more of a factor in structuring language than constituency (hierarchical) relations;
  • most generalizations hold at only a low-level of patterning.

This talk begins with a brief survey of some of the major lessons that corpus linguistics has provided us based on analysis of English, a “mega” language that functions at all levels of society, is inter-generationally transmitted, and exists robustly as speech, instant-messaging, and writing. I move quickly to a consideration of “micro” oral languages, especially polysynthetic ones such as the Athapaskan (Dene) language, Dene Sųłiné (ISO 639-3: chp), spoken across the three Canadian prairie provinces and the NWT, which prove to be no exception to the findings itemized above. Just possibly, oral languages may help us understand the role that variation plays within a speech community, since the lack of a conservativizing and homogenizing literary tradition in these languages allows linguists to attend to differences that may be otherwise dismissed in written languages as performance quirks or errors. The narrative arc that I wish to convey in this talk is that in oral, polysynthetic languages, variation in form, pronunciation, and meaning is the norm. How successive generations of variability might have accrued, leading to full-blown language differentiation, is the subject of the subsequent talk.


Wednesday November 21

TALK 2: Variation writ larger: How an ethos of esoterogeny may have spawned linguistic innovation and differentiation across a language family

Some basic premises, originating with Sapir, about the Athapaskan (or Dene) language family include the following: (i) that it is exceptionally weird in its polysynthetic nature; (ii) that phonotactic and morphosyntactic considerations may have mitigated against borrowing across the family, thus providing an insulating and stabilizing effect; and (iii) that speakers of the four-to-five dozen daughter languages attested at the time of colonial contact may have been mutually intelligible until quite recently (late 19th century). Indeed, this last claim is all the more striking given the extensive and discontinuous geographic distribution of current Dene speech communities and the pronounced cultural and cosmological differences among distinct Dene peoples today. I will offer a different perspective on point (ii), that typological complexities in the language diminished the opportunities for contact effects to hasten diversification. Instead, I propose that group dynamics among the Dene traditionally––chiefly an insider-orientation or esoteric posture, fostered tolerance towards variation and innovation in the language.

Looking comparatively across the family, one definitely finds evidence of the “dialect continuum” that Sapir (and others) was referencing. Equally impressive, though, and less appreciated are the pronounced and often irregular phonological differences among even neighboring languages, as well as differences in the endolexicon (universal concepts that reference, for example, body parts and kin relations), in basic morphosyntax (TAM, agreement, valency marking, possession), not to mention sentence and discourse structure, including markers of subjectivity and evidentiality. Using a variety of sources, from published material to the author’s own comparative lexicon and field data from several Dene languages, ample evidence of heterogeneity in the family is provided. Whether this diversity (some of which––in terms of inflection and word order––qualifies for distinctiveness at the typological level) has resulted from the incremental accumulation of small-level, idiolectal and dialectal variation or is the result of attrition and language loss in the face of colonialization and globalization is beyond the scope of this presentation. However, because of known historical events in the geological and archaeological record, we can assert that the dispersion of Dene peoples in western North America has a relatively shallow time depth of 1-1.5 ka BP. Thus, diversification in the family could be taken as a test case for what happens when tensions between oralcy, an ethos of sociolinguistic opacity in the face of cultural adaptability, and opportunities afforded by climate change and migration conspire to produce what we see across the family today: exuberant differences built upon a common substrate.

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