Thursday, September 18, 2008

papers for conference proceedings

Though I think so few people read this that I have little need of apologies, I thought I would make available to the public the reason there was no post on Monday: I was finishing up two papers which were due for conference proceedings that day. I won't get into detail about them, but I thought I would offer a short description of each.

Neologisms in Indigenous Languages of North America

A neologism is a new word created to name a new concept, often using productive morphology. For instance, "computer" is a neologism in English. In English we borrow --a LOT--, and most of our technical terms come essentially wholesale from Latin or Greek. However, Native American langauges are different. The reason I chose this topic was because I kept noticing that their names for new (esp. European) concepts weren't borrowings, but rather descriptive words or phrases (e.g., the Blackfoot word for 'car' means "it starts moving without apparent cause"). So I decided to investigate further and hopefully prove what I had a hunch was true: American languages coin new words much more often than they borrow words or expand the semantic scope of existing words. In the end, this did indeed turn out to be true. I also discovered an interesting trend: for animals, the trend didn't hold. In that category words were slightly more likely to borrow (though it wasn't a statistically significant difference).

Irrealis in Blackfoot (with Leora Bar-el)

The term "irrealis" is used to sentences that refer to the world other than how it is. The most typical irrealis contexts are conditionals and counterfactuals (e.g., "If I had a million dollars... [but I don't]"), but also can include imperatives, future, negation, and several other situations. Our goal was to investigat whether it makes sense to say that Blackfoot has irrealis as a grammatical category. Some languages clearly do. In Caddo, a Caddoan language spoken in Oklahoma, they use a different set of person prefixes depending on whether the context is realis or irrealis. English does not seem to have irrealis as a grammatical category, because we treat many different irrealis contexts in different ways (compares imperatives, negation, questions, conditionals, and counterfactuals -- you won't find any striking morphological or syntactic similarities as we do in Caddo). Our conclusion was that Blackfoot indeed lacks a grammatical category irrealis because no irrealis contexts are marked in a similar manner except for yes/no questions and negative statements. Mithun (1999) claims that minimally we would expect conditionals and counterfactuals to pattern together if irrealis has any real status in a language. Since this isn't true in Blackfoot (and for several other reasons), we concluded that Blackfoot lacks irrealis as a true grammatical category.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

the four-way morphological typology of languages

I'm taking a typology class this semester, so I thought I would post on the four-way morphological typology typically employed when discussing languages. Typology is concerned with the limited number of patterns that languages use, and how the use of these patterns (especially which are most common) tells us about things which are universal in language. One way of categorizing languages is according to morphology (how languages put together words). Two indeces are typically used: the index of synthesis, which refers to how many morphemes are contained in a typical word, and the index of fusion, which refers to how segmentable morphemes are and how transparent the morphophonological changes are.

On the index of synthesis, we have two poles: isolating and polysynthetic. An isolating language typically has one morpheme per word (i.e., there is a separate word for every grammatical function, e.g., Chinese or Vietnamese). A polysynthetic language typically has many morphemes per word, and entire sentences/complete thoughts are a single word (e.g., Blackfoot). As an example, the Blackfoot word kitakitamatsinopoao(a), which is used as "goodbye", literally translates as "You (pl.) and I will see each other again". Sometimes this is classification broken down further, either into synthetic (1-3 morphemes per word) vs. polysynthetic (4 or more morphemes per word), or into synthetic/polysynthetic (many morphemes, but only one lexical root) vs. incorporating (words have multiple lexical roots, e.g., Chukchi).

The index of fusion also has two poles: agglutinative and fusional (or inflectional). Agglutinative languages have many morphemes in a word, but each morpheme contributes only one grammatical meaning, and each morpheme is clearly segmented, e.g., Turkish. English, when it uses multiple morphemes in a word, is usually agglutinative. "Wonderfully" is easily segmented into wonder-ful-ly, and each morpheme contributes a single meaning. Fusional languages, on the other hand, tend to use fewer morphemes per word because each morpheme contributes multiple grammatical meanings, e.g., Russian or Spanish. In Spanish, the -o in "hablo" contributes the meanings "1st person", "singular", "present", and "indicative mood". It's a single sound, so it's not possible to segment it at all; it simply has all those meanings rolled into one sound.

Now, of course there are essentially no language that fit neatly into one category or another (including the languages I cited as example in each category), which is why we organize the four traits into sliding scales rather than leaving them as strict categories. Some languages are more analytic, some or more synthetic. Some languages are more agglutinative, while some are more fusional.

Monday, September 8, 2008

footnotes v. endnotes

I'm in the process of preparing a paper for submission to the International Journal of American Linguistis (or IJAL as we affectionately call it), and one of their more annoying requirements is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. As an author, I don't much care (though footnotes are a little easier to deal with because I don't have to scroll back to where I was to begin with). However, as a reader, I hate endnotes. If I want to know what's being referenced, I have to either flip to the last page every time I see one, or else leave that page out (an annoying requirement as I typically don't bind articles, and put the page I've just read behind the stack of paper). I'm sure many people don't read them at all. As a reader, I say that's fine, but I'm of the persuasion that if the author thought it necessary to include, it's probably valuable to read. As an author, it worries me, since I put information that's sometimes vital to the interpretation of my text in notes. Footnoting a sentence or two doesn't mean it's of no value; it simply means that the note doesn't flow correctly in that spot of the text. Thus the two possible solutions: (1) put the information in the main body of the text, or (2) leave out the information as unnecessary, are often neither one an option.

I suppose it's not very linguistics-related, but I had to get it off my chest. Oh, and they have to be double-spaced as well. I understand requiring that for the typesetter, but for initial manuscript submissions before the paper's even been accepted? Seems unnecessary. What was a twenty-page paper with normal margins, notes, and spacing is quickly becoming a forty-page paper, dangerously close to IJAL's upper limit of fifty pages.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is future a tense?

I'm currently taking a semantics seminar on tense and aspect, and yesterday we briefly touched on the sticky topic of whether future is truly a tense. The idea is that the boundary between future and irrealis (roughly, counterfactual and potential events) is fuzzy at best, and many claim nonexistent. This is because unlike the past and present, the future isn't set in stone, and thus there is the question of whether or not a statement in the future tense can ever have any kind of truth value. The main questions here are:

(1) Do statements about the future have truth values?

(2) Do irrealis statements have truth values?

Obviously, if the answer to (1) is yes and the answer to (2) is no, then future cannot logically be irrealis. However, there is good reason to say that future statements cannot have a truth value (or that they have a conditional truth value).

At the heart of the matter is what we mean when we say "John will arrive at 3:00 tomorrow". Is that truly a future tense statement? Is it the same as "John arrived at 3:00 yesterday"? One answer is no, that people mean "I believe John will arrive at 3:00 tomorrow", or "John is scheduled to arrive at 3:00 tomorrow". However, I firmly believe that in some statements from some people, there truly is a future tense. After all, we can negate the future: "It's not going to rain tomorrow". Conservatively, we can reduce that negative statement to a negative statement of belief, but I'm not convinced that's how we practically use the future (note that I'm not just talking about English here, but all langauges that have future marking that differs from irrealis marking). Logically, future is irrealis, but people don't speak logically. So taking a logical standpoint that when someone says "It's going to rain tomorrow" they cannot logically know the fact, that it is a statement of belief or prediction, is not necessarily valid or relevant.

If we compare the truth values for various irrealis contexts, we find that they differ significantly from the future. Conditional statements are evaluated by A --> B (I'm using --> to mean "then"), i.e., a conditional statement is true if A U B (U being the symbolic logical symbol for "and") or ~A (~ being the symbolic logical symbol for "not"). Counterfactuals have a similar truth value, but with the added given that A is not true, e.g., "If I had a million dollars, I'd be rich (but I don't have a million dollars)". Imperatives have no truth value: you can't say "that's not true" if I tell you to shut up (though you can respond that you are not talking, since imperatives presuppose that whatever state is demanded is not currently in existence, in this case, that you are not shutting up). Interrogatives I take to have a (vacuous) truth value, because if I say "Is it raining?" I am asserting that either it is raining or it is not, yielding an logical entailment of A v ~A (where v is the logical operator for "or"), which is always true.

On the other hand (to me, at least) future statements simply offer a single simple assertion: A, e.g., "It will rain tomorrow", and can easily be evaluated, even if not at the present moment. Likewise, past and present statements also give the simple assertion A, without any conditions or complex interactions. Since language and logic are so often not intertwined in any meaningful way, I haven't yet decided if this kind of analysis is at all useful, but it's a start.