TPS 115(1) – Abstract 2

Verbal triplication morphology in Stau རྟའུ། (Mazi dialect)

by Jesse P. Gates (Southwest University for Nationalities)

This paper presents the first documentation and analysis of a typologically remarkable process of verbal triplication in the Stau language (Sino-Tibetan). Moreover, Stau’s triplication of verbs to index multiple agents (S/A) and to pragmatically highlight those agents, as is demonstrated in this study, is a morphological process that has not been documented among any of the world’s spoken languages to date. Stau’s verbal triplication, although unique in many regards, falls into a broader typological linguistic pattern of iconicity, demonstrating that there is often a strong tie between form and function.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12083

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 1

Words and Paradigms: Peter H. Matthews and the Development of Morphological Theory

by Stephen Anderson (Yale University)

The tension between morpheme-based views of word structure, on which words are exhaustively divided into atomic units linking form and content, and word and paradigm views, on which words are analyzed in terms of their relations to others, goes back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. The history of this opposition within modern linguistics is described, and the specific role of Peter H. Matthews in promoting the superiority of a non-morphemic approach to morphology is highlighted. Arguments for such an approach are briefly reviewed, with discussion of the response to these on the part of the broader field of linguistics.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12090

Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)

by Wolfgang D. C. de Melo (University of Oxford)

I must begin this blog post with a little confession. As an undergraduate and to a large extent still as a graduate, I found it hard to get excited about the history of linguistics. Of course I respected the great achievements of the Neogrammarians and of early phoneticians like Henry Sweet or Daniel Jones; but I was more interested in the results of their work than in how they got there. Any linguistic work written before the nineteenth century left me cold. Like any other classics undergraduate, I read through various grammarians. I liked the fact that they preserved so many quotations from early literature that had otherwise been lost. But beyond that I could not see anything of value in them. To me, Nonius was an encyclopaedia of errors; Isidore made me shudder; and, as Eduard Norden, the great authority on Latin style, told us, Varro had the worst prose style of any Latin writer before the Middle Ages.

In view of all this, it came as a bit of a shock to me when I was asked by OUP whether I would be willing to edit Varro’s De lingua Latina, our earliest extant treatise on Latin grammar. I had to think long and hard about it before I said yes. One thing that I consider vital for a text like this is a translation and a commentary. They are necessary because the text is both fragmentary and technical. I have now been working on Varro for a few years, and during this time I have come to respect, admire, and even like him.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) was born in Reate, modern Rieti. He was politically active and had his own farm, and yet, despite all this, he managed to write several hundred books on philosophy, history, agriculture, and language. An ancient book corresponds to a modern book chapter in length, but even so this output is astounding. Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, and there are indications that Varro often wrote in haste and could have produced better quality if he had written in less of a hurry. However, on the whole he is an original and thoughtful writer with many valid and interesting insights.

Originally, the De lingua Latina comprised twenty-five books. An introductory volume was followed by six books on etymology, six on morphology, and twelve on syntax. Sadly, we only have fragments of the books on syntax. What we do have in almost complete form is books 5-10, that is, the second half of the etymological part and the first half of the morphological part.

Of the etymological books, the first three covered the theory of etymology. The three books that we still have deal with the practical side. Book 5 gives us hundreds of etymologies of places and things; book 6 deals with the etymologies of times and actions; and book 7 discusses all these concepts in poetry.

Varro did not know that sound change is regular, and of course he had never heard of the comparative method. It comes as no surprise that many of his etymologies are, by modern standards, ‘wrong’. But wrong does not equal stupid. His method is surprisingly sound. He identified loan words, and did so by and large correctly. Among native words, he looked for words that are similar in sound and meaning. This approach enabled him to find many etymological connections that we can confirm today with the help of the comparative method.

Perhaps a few examples will show more clearly how Varro’s mind works.

Continue reading “Varro’s ‘De lingua Latina’ (‘On the Latin language’)”

Understanding the loss of inflection

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

The role of inflection is one of the most conspicuous ways that languages differ from each other. While English speakers only have to learn four or five forms of the verb, speakers of Georgian have to deal with paradigms containing hundreds of forms. In return for their efforts, they gain the ability to express complex propositions compactly: the single word vuc’er requires five words in its English translation ‘I am writing to him’.

Surrey Morphology Group
Loss of Inflection: a research project by the Surrey Morphology Group

The extent of inflectional morphology also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language – during its recorded history English has dramatically reduced the inflection it inherited from Proto-Germanic, leaving only a few relics, like the distinction between pronominal I/me, she/her, he/him.

The inflectional poverty of modern English may come as a relief to the many people who learn it as a second language, but its meagre remaining stock of inflection is zealously guarded by purists. Barack Obama was ‘roundly criticized’ for using a subject pronoun in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” – a use described by Hock in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991: 629) as ‘the ultimate horror’ (admittedly in scare quotes), and which even led one blogger to comment “believe it or not, this was a contributing factor to my voting decision”. Continue reading “Understanding the loss of inflection”

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 3

Analogical Levelling and Optimisation: the Treatment of Pointless Lexical Allomorphy in Greek

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

Ancient Greek verbal morphology involved extensive allomorphy of lexical morphemes, most of which was phonologically and semantically arbitrary, lexically idiosyncratic, and functionally redundant. This was subsequently reduced through analogical levelling, which eliminates alternations in favour of a single phonological expression of underlying meaning. This reduction of arbitrary complexity is often observed in the development of morphological systems, which has inspired a common view of morphological change as being guided by universal preferences, nudging languages along paths which will lead them to a more optimal status. This paper applies data from the history of Greek to two questions about analogical levelling and the role of ‘optimisation’. Firstly, is levelling motivated by a universal preference for a one-to-one alignment of meaning and form? Secondly, is the direction of levelling determined by universal preferences for particular ways of marking morphosyntactic distinctions? I will argue that the answer to both questions is no: the developments observed here are remarkably well predicted by language-specific, formal properties of paradigms, without the need to invoke universal preferences. These facts are best accommodated if speaker competence includes detailed probabilistic information about the predictive structure of paradigms, which has important implications for morphological theory, as well as historical linguistics.

TPS 114(2) – Abstract 3

Italo-Romance Metaphony and the Tuscan Diphthongs

by Martin Maiden (University of Oxford)

The historical causes of general so-called ‘opening’ diphthongization of proto-Romance low mid vowels in stressed open syllables are an enduring matter of dispute in historical Romance phonology, the two principal positions being that the diphthongs originate in the assimilatory process of metaphony conditioned by following unstressed vowels, or that they are a matter of ‘spontaneous’ diphthongization associated with lengthening of the vowels. Most recent scholarship on the subject has tended to favour the latter view. This study, focusing on Tuscan (and thereby on Italian), reasserts the case for the former interpretation, critically reviewing older arguments and adducing new ones to show that the details of Tuscan open syllable diphtongization are significantly correlated with a metaphonic origin, despite claims to the contrary. In particular, I argue that the restriction of the generalized diphthongs to open syllables reflects the early conditions of metaphony, and that the occasional absence of the diphthongs in Tuscan systematically presupposes the historical absence of a metaphonizing environment. In conclusion, I reflect on the significance of my claims both for general Romance historical morphology and, particularly, for the place of Tuscan among the Italo-Romance dialects. The data also show how morphological analogy may play a significant role in the diffusion of the effects of sound change.

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