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Linguistic Adaptation: Typological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives to Language Variation

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GramAdapt (Linguistic Adaptation: Typological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives to Language Variation)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-30

GramAdapt is an interdisciplinary research project that aims to better understand whether and how language structure may adapt over time to the social contexts in which languages are learned and used. To reach this aim we bring together worldwide comparison of languages (i.e. the field of language typology) and the study of language in its social context (i.e. sociolinguistics). Our main hypothesis is that language structures adapt to social environment in much the same way as many other aspects of human behaviour adapt to environment.

The GramAdapt project develops a systematic conceptual and methodological approach for combining sociolinguistic and typological research to answer questions about linguistic adaptation in a principled data-driven way. Combining these fields has been difficult in the past owing especially to methodological obstacles: language typology tends to approach languages from a macro-perspective, while sociolinguistics does so from a micro-perspective. It is also not at all clear how to causally connect the two fields, although many ideas have been suggested during the past 15 years.

In addition to developing a framework for bridging language typology with sociolinguistics, the project collects both linguistic and sociolinguistic data from 150 languages and tests hypotheses about linguistic adaptation statistically. For instance, most languages in human history have been spoken by small people groups, but we do not have a clear idea what happens in them and whether they are somehow systematically different compared to languages spoken by larger people groups, or those spoken in highly multilingual settings. The results will make it possible to better understand how languages vary and change under different social contexts when compared from a world-wide perspective.
The GramAdapt project functions as an interdisciplinary team at the University of Helsinki consisting of the PI, three postdoctoral researchers, and three assistants. The team mostly works in pairs instead of each one focusing on an individual area. This distribution of tasks has enabled efficient and productive knowledge transfer and early identification of problems.

We started to develop the project’s overall research design with the realization that the different parts of the research design must be interdependent and thus choices in one subpart affect choices in the other subparts. To come to grips with this, we have tailored each piece of the design so that the model of causation, approach to comparison, and the sampling would be compatible with one another. A review and synthesis of mechanisms of language change under different social situations is well under way and the preliminary results have been used in developing other parts of the design. We have also worked on evaluating causal chains in language evolution (Roberts et al. 2020), which feeds our causal model as well as our overall framework. For selecting languages and speech communities we have developed a new sampling method that is more sensitive to the relationship of languages in contact compared to previous methods. The selection of languages is now done, and we will proceed with data collection next. We have also started testing hypotheses about linguistic adaptation, the initial results suggesting that morphological complexity is affected by both language internal and language external factors (Sinnemäki 2020).

The most innovative aspect of the project thus far has been developing methods for comparative sociolinguistics. We are currently developing a sociolinguistic questionnaire and comparative parameters for sociolinguistics that guide and structure all our data collection of sociolinguistic features. Collection of linguistic data has started on case, grammatical gender, and suprasegmental phonology. Since many languages of the world have only little inflection, we broadened the range of linguistic variables beyond inflection to include features that are cross-linguistically more widespread. For this reason, we have started collecting also phonological data and anticipate collecting some lexical data as well (on kinship terms). The preliminary results on suprasegmental phonology appear very promising.

Selected publications:
Napoleão de Souza, R. & K. Sinnemäki (in revision). Beyond segment inventories: Phonological complexity and suprasegmental variables in contact situations. Journal of Language Contact.
Roberts, Sean, Anton Killin, Angarika Deb, Catherine Sheard, Simon J. Greenhill, Kaius Sinnemäki et al. 2020. CHIELD: The causal hypotheses in evolutionary linguistics database. Journal of Language Evolution 5(1).
Sinnemäki, K. 2020. Linguistic system and sociolinguistic environment as competing factors in linguistic variation: A typological approach. To appear in Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 6(2).
The GramAdapt project has advanced the state of the art in the following ways:

(1) We are building an integrated model which ties together our approaches to comparison, causation, sampling, and data collection in a new way. We expect our full new framework on sociolinguistics and typology to be ready in schedule, towards the end of the project, firmly backed up by typological, sociolinguistic, and corpus data. Our work on applying typological knowledge to historical sociolinguistic research has also already produced completely novel results on the development of nominal classification.

(2) Our sampling method puts contact relations between languages at centre stage in a way not implemented before, which enables probing linguistic adaptation in a rigorous way. We expect the method to be published within the next two years.

(3) Our preliminary results on linguistic adaptation provide the first ever typological comparison of language internal and external effects. According to the results, both language internal and external factors are needed when modelling morphological complexity across languages. These results anticipate that the project’s main empirical results will be richer than expected, revealing new knowledge about how language is shaped in its social environment.

(4) The sociolinguistic questionnaire and our methods for comparing sociolinguistic environments to one another are novel and enable large-scale comparison of sociolinguistic environments when it is unfeasible to collect data from individual language users. The questionnaire will be finalized during the next half a year, followed by intensive period of data collection.

(5) Our work on the suprasegmental domain shows for the first time that it is rife with contact-induced complexifications unlike morphology where language contact more often seems to lead to simplifications.

Overall, the project is well on track. We expect our methods to be largely ready within the next year, and data collection being mostly done during the next 1.5 years. Expected major result of the project include a novel framework for a synthesis between sociolinguistic and typological variation, empirical evidence that evaluates linguistic adaptations, and new rich data on sociolinguistic and linguistic variation in the languages of the world.
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