23rd Annual Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL)

The Linguistics Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara announces its 23rd Annual Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL), which provides a forum for the discussion of theoretical, descriptive, and practical studies of the indigenous languages of the Americas.

WAIL is in its twenty-third year as an annual forum for the presentation and discussion of research on indigenous languages of the Americas. WAIL has participants from a variety of UC Santa Barbara Departments (Linguistics, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Chicano Studies, and others) as well as faculty, students, and community members from around the world.

Dates: April 30th - May 1st
Registration here.

Download the program here.

Abstract of the keynote presentation:

Dying grammars?: A critical approach to language obsolescence from language description and  computational linguistic typology

Roberto Zariquiey
Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú

More than thirty years after the pioneering research by Dorian (1980 and 1981), Hill (1983),  Dressler (1981); Andersen (1982), and Schmidt (1985a and 1985b), among many others, crucial issues on the structural properties of obsolescing languages are still far from being accurately understood. In this talk, I advance some ideas that attempt to contribute to a  better understanding of the nature and the challenges of language obsolescence from two different perspectives: (i) language documentation and description; and (ii) typological research on obsolescing languages using computational techniques. Both perspectives are integral to a general research program on language obsolescence.

(i) Case marking, radical variability and obsolescence in Iskonawa (Pano, Peru)

Descriptive linguists around the world are trained in how to identify grammatical relations.  The procedure is more or less as follows: the linguist (a) compares how the A and P arguments of transitive constructions and the S argument of intransitive ones are encoded; then (b)  searches for formal similarities among them, and finally (c) identifies the associations that determine the alignment types. Thus, although grammatical relations are construction-specific  (Comrie 1978, 1979; Fillmore 1988, Bickel 2011, among many others), their empirical investigation rests upon the comparison of (at least) two different types of constructions  (transitive vs. intransitive). This paradigmatic approach presupposes that intransitive and transitive constructions will systematically exhibit the same properties, and that, if they do not, there will always be a pattern that can be described in terms of what is known as differential/optional case marking (de Hoop and Malchukov 2007).

Iskonawa (a Panoan language spoken in Peru by only five elderly people) exhibits radical inter and intra-speaker variation in how the pronominal A, P, and S arguments are encoded  (Zariquiey 2015). The different forms that participate in this diverse marking of arguments produce ergative, accusative, tripartite, and neutral alignments according to which specific transitive and intransitive constructions are used in the paradigmatic comparison described above. As a descriptive linguist working on the grammatical description of Iskonawa, I believe that this extreme variation cannot be described in terms of differential/optional case marking,  and indeed challenges the traditional paradigmatic approach to the identification of grammatical relations. In this part of this talk, I explore the complexities of pronominal case marking in Iskonawa and present two different descriptive approaches: a diachronic one based on the notion of internal reconstruction, and a synchronic one that uses innovative methods to deal with and account for radical variation. I argue that understanding the differences between these two approaches is essential to build a more transparent paradigm for the description of obsolescing languages.

(ii) Assessing the “simplification” hypothesis through large-scale typological research on  language obsolescence using computational methods

The literature on the structural correlates of language obsolescence often presents very general claims about the typological properties of obsolescing languages, based on a handful of specific case studies. Obsolescing languages are often assumed to have changed in a similar direction and to exhibit some general structural trends that point towards the idea of simplification (I call this the “simplification hypothesis”). The phenomena often attributed to obsolescing languages in the simplification hypothesis include phonetic/phonological,  morphological and syntactic reduction, overgeneralization of features, stylistic shrinkage, and even agrammatism, thus creating the general impression that obsolescing languages are in some way defective or incomplete.  

Based on an ongoing collaborative research led by Damian Blasi and myself, I advance here the results of three different experiments exploring the profile of obsolescing languages from both a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. These experiments are mainly based on  Grambank data (carefully controlling for genetic and areal effects), as well as on the systematic comparison of grammatical descriptions of the same obsolescing language separated by approximately 50 years. None of our experiments was able to find systematic patterns distinguishing obsolescing languages from vital ones. It is concluded based on this research that languages remain complex and diverse in the context of language obsolescence,  thus contradicting the “simplification” hypothesis. Obsolescing languages are not intrinsically simpler than vital languages. In fact, as was the case of Iskonawa, such languages are likely to exhibit complex patterns that challenge fundamental concepts in descriptive and typological linguistics.


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