The forums will take place in the Springbank/Canberry Rooms of the Crawford Building, ANU. 

Monday 1st February

Peter Trudgill: Complexity in small languages: what is the evidence?

Nettle (1999) wrote that ‘no relationships of grammatical typology to structure or social organisation have been convincingly demonstrated’, but that ‘it seems quite plausible that some such relationship could exist’, although ‘the question has received little rigorous scholarly attention’. It is precisely this question which sociolinguistic typology is intended to devote scholarly attention to. This term refers to research which attempts to apply sociolinguistic data and insights to the study of the typology of the world’s languages. The goal is to investigate whether, and to what extent, the typological characteristics of the world’s languages are influenced by social structure and social organisation – by the sociolinguistic characteristics of the communities in which they are spoken.

A number of different social parameters taken in combination appear to shed light on the social determinants of linguistic structure. These factors are not only community size but also social network structure; social stability; contact with other communities; and amounts of communally shared information. It emerges from work in this field that the most significant consequence of these social factors for linguistic structure has to do with issues concerning phonological, morphophonological and morphological simplicity as opposed to complexity. 

Response to Trudgill talk

Tuesday 2nd February

James Stanford: Sociolinguistics of Sui clans and other communities of descent

Research on large communities has provided many valuable insights about dialect contact and other sociolinguistic questions. But small communities have an important story to tell as well. This study of dialect contact and the "sociolinguistics of exogamy" investigates several small Sui villages, and invites scholarly comparison and connections to other similar communities.

The Sui people of rural southwest China practice strict clan exogamy, as their customs require that a wife and husband originate in different clans. Because the wife moves permanently to the husband's village, each Sui village hosts a rich and diverse mix of clans and regions. For example, in one village of 150 people, 19 different clans were represented by in-married women. What types of sociolinguistic patterns appear in this multidialectal environment? Do in-married wives produce the dialect features of their original clans or the husband's village? How does exogamy affect the construction of gender and gendered language choices? Whose dialect do the children speak, at what ages, and why? Does all of this variation affect the long-term path of language change? How does density of village interactions relate to clan dialects and clan ideology?

These questions can be addressed with the notion of "communities of descent," a kinship-based social construct centered around lifelong clan loyalties. Communities of descent are relevant for many other small indigenous communities beyond Sui, including Zhuang, Hmong, and others. Starting with these languages, this study aims to elicit discussion from other researchers' work on related communities elsewhere in the world.

Wednesday 3rd February

Peter Trudgill: Complexity in small languages: how can we account for it?

Under what kind of social conditions are we most likely to see the development over long periods of time – out of earlier more analytic ancestors – of highly fusional, inflecting languages like Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, or highly fusional polysynthetic languages like Apache and Greenlandic, with large degrees of irregularity? A sociolinguistic-typological perspective suggests that processes which lead to an increase in complex forms are such that they must not only be allowed to run for long time periods, but that these periods must be uninterrupted by episodes of significant adult language contact. Irregularity takes many generations of uninterrupted linguistic change to develop because it makes for L2 difficulty. Highly irregular and non-transparent features are harder to learn and remember because they are ‘cognitive irritants’. Large amounts of irregularity will not survive adult language contact on a large scale.

Societal isolation and stability are therefore crucial for complexity development. Only stable situations without contact will permit the undisturbed development of, say, highly fusional morphology over the long periods of time required. Complexity is thus more likely to develop in relatively stable, low-contact communities. For internally-generated complexifying developments to occur, and to keep on occurring, a state of equilibrium needs to be maintained without punctuating factors intervening.

Thursday 4th February

James Stanford: Investigating language variation and change in small communities

Traditionally, much of the research in the Labovian paradigm of language variation and change has focused on large, urban, industrialized, Western communities. But in recent years, this quantitative variationist program has begun to include more work on small indigenous languages. Small communities have a great deal to offer the study of variation and change, including new knowledge about less commonly studied linguistic variables like tone, and segmental variation in complex or understudied phonologies. The diverse sociocultural factors found in these communities can also provide a testing ground for classic sociolinguistic principles. Those principles, originally formulated with an emphasis on large Western communities, are sometimes supported but sometimes challenged by data from diverse settings. In some cases, research on small communities has shown how a classic Western-based principle may actually be a special case of a more general principle. Among the egalitarian Sheshatshiu Innu, for example, Clarke finds evidence of Labovian stratification effects that depend on socially meaningful territorial groupings, despite the absence of any class differences

Small communities also provide culturally diverse outcomes for gender, sex, age, transmission and diffusion, sociolinguistics of mobility and dialect contact, as well as new insights on multilingualism, majority/minority contact, obsolescence and language vitality, construction of ethnic identity, and the role of standard ideology and unwritten languages. With these issues in mind, the present study examines variationist data from a range of indigenous communities: Sui, Hmong Daw, Mong Leng, Bouyei, Zhuang, Ersu, Lalo, and Native American communities, along with others' work.

Friday 5th February

Synthesis and discussion

Round table commentary by respondents, followed by open discussion.

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