Yale linguists speak at ICHL

August 19, 2017

Professor Claire Bowern, Professor María Piñango, and graduate student Martín Fuchs spoke at this year’s International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL), hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Claire gave the sixth plenary lecture of the conference and participated in a panel discussion with Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge, Marianne Mithun of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Patience Epps of the University of Texas at Austin. In her plenary lecture, Claire discussed her work on aboriginal Australian languages and its relationship with three current issues in historical linguistics. Firstly, it has been noted that language communities in Australia differ significantly from language communities in Europe: unlike their European counterparts, Australian language communities are “small, mobile, [and] multilingual.” In spite of these differences, however, principles of historical linguistics have been successfully applied to the study of Australian languages, even though these principles were developed through the study of Indo-European languages. Secondly, Claire showcased the modern techniques she uses in her work. While historical linguists traditionally discover relationships between languages by manually examining thousands of words across multiple languages, Claire’s work compares languages using methods from computational phylogenetics, yielding results that are more consistent and objective than the manual approach. Finally, the lecture concluded with remarks about the theory of language change. Much research has been done on how inherent properties of language produce biases in how languages might change over time. However, language change can also be driven by external factors, such as social and cultural influences among language speakers. Viewing language as something that evolves in response to external pressures provides a natural framework in which to study non-linguistic drivers of language change.

María and Martín, along with Ashwini Deo of the Ohio State University, gave a talk at a workshop entitled Atomizing Linguistic Change & the Nuclear Step: From Individual Realization to Emergence. The talk focused on the fact that there are two ways of describing an event in progress in Spanish: using a present progressive verb, or using a simple present (or imperfective) verb. For example, consider the following two sentences.

  • Juan está bailando.
    ‘Juan is dancing.’
  • Juan baila.
    ‘Juan dances.’/‘Juan is dancing.’

The first sentence uses a present progressive verb (está bailando ‘is dancing’), while the second uses an imperfective verb (baila ‘dances’). Both sentences could express the meaning of an event in progress (‘Juan is dancing’), while the imperfective could also mean that Juan dances, but is not necessarily dancing currently.

It has been noted that in many languages, progressive and imperfective verbs change in usage according to a pattern called the progressive to imperfective shift. The shift occurs in three steps. In the recruitment step, a new progressive verb form appears in the language. This verb form describes events in progress, which are previously described using imperfective verbs. Next, the progressive verb form undergoes categorization: while both the imperfective and progressive forms can describe events in progress, the progressive form becomes required in certain contexts. Within this context, the progressive form begins to describe imperfective meanings in addition to events in progress. This leads to generalization, the final step, in which the progressive form acquires an imperfective meaning in all contexts.

María, Martín, and Ashwini’s study sought to investigate how far the Spanish progressive form has evolved along the progressive to imperfective shift. To do this, the researchers conducted a survey of Spanish speakers from the Iberian, Rioplatense, and Mexican Altiplano dialects—spoken in Spain, Argentina, and Mexico, respectively. The survey asked participants to rate sentences describing events in progress with imperfective and progressive verbs. The researchers found that all participants preferred the progressive to the imperfective form for describing events in progress, indicating that the recruitment stage is well underway. In addition, Iberian and Rioplatense speakers gave higher ratings to imperfective verbs if the context provides enough information to deduce that the verb describes an event in progress, while Mexican Altiplano speakers consistently gave low ratings to imperfective verbs regardless of context. The researchers conclude that Mexican Altiplano Spanish is farther along in the categorization step than the other two dialects, since the progressive verb seems to be required in this dialect for events in progress.

ICHL was held from July 31 to August 4 in San Antonio, Texas. The full schedule is available on the conference website. Video recordings of selected sessions from the conference, including Claire’s panel discussion, is available on the conference YouTube channel.

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