521-Class 25

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Language diversity and language change: why are there different languages and why are some so complicated?[edit]

Readings: Lupyan & Dale (2015). Don't worry about the section on the agent-based model.

Have a quick look at Babelicious and Lupyan & Dale, 2010 (included in the zip file; might want to read this if you're interested in this topic)

Study questions

  • Where do the authors come down on the argument that the differences between languages are merely superficial?
  • You should understand the difference between changes (to languages or biological species) that are due to drift vs. changes due to adaptation.
  • What is the “linguistic niche hypothesis” and what observations gave rise to this idea? What does the hypothesis say about the question “Why are there different languages?”
  • How might the proportion of nonnative speakers in a population influence language change?
  • How might child learner constraints influence the form of a language?
  • What are some pieces of evidence that language adapts to the physical environment (ecology)?

Take home points[edit]

  • Languages are deeply and interestingly different from one another. It’s difficult to find true non-trivial linguistic universals (of the all languages have X variety).
  • Why are languages different from one another? Common Explanation: Just drift.
  • Alternative explanation (Linguistic Niche Hypothesis): Adaptation. Languages adapt to the environment in which they are learned and used. Differences in the environment (e.g., child vs. adult learners) lead to different language structures being selected.
  • Exoteric Languages (e.g., English, Mandarin) are morphologically simpler than esoteric languages (e.g., Najavjo, Icelandic). Morphological simplicity likely aids adult learning. Morphological complexity may aid child learning (by increasing redundancy)