Wilbur Cross Medal Talk

October 11, 2012

The Yale University Linguistics Department was pleased to welcome back to campus its distinguished alumna Sally Thomason ‘68 (Linguistics PhD) University of Michigan. Professor Thomason was honored by the Yale Graduate School with its Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal. To make the occasion, Professor Thomason gave a talk on her work (see title and abstract below) on Thursday, October 11th, 2012.

When is language contact the best explanation for a linguistic change? 

After a review of four conditions that have to be met to support a fully convincing claim of contact-induced language change, this talk will focus on the boundaries of historical explanation: Is it sometimes reasonable to propose language contact as a cause of change even when one or more of the conditions for a fully convincing claim can’t be met? Is it ever appropriate to treat internal causation as the default in attempts to explain linguistic changes? And, crucially, when is it necessary to give up – to admit that no cause for a given (set of) change(s) can be established? Not surprisingly, there can be no definitive answers to any of these questions. But exploring them is nevertheless useful, because even tentative explanations for changes can lead to advances in our understanding of linguistic change. The short answer to the first question above is therefore yes. I will argue that the answer to the second question is no: the priority that has traditionally been given to internal explanations for changes should be abandoned. I will also argue that there are indeed cases where no explanation is better than a poorly-supported explanation. Examples will be drawn from a range of historical contexts that include (by hypothesis) both internally- and externally-caused changes, as well as changes for which no causal explanation seems appropriate. Deliberate changes – such as those that arise through processes of language planning, in the broadest sense – will contribute significantly to the discussion, because a long-ago deliberate change is unlikely to be recognizable as such in the absence of substantial sociolinguistic information.

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