Erich Round (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena; University of Queensland)
The comparative method is one of the greatest methodological achievements in the history of linguistics. And yet, despite its relatively precise formulation, we do not have an automated implementation of it, and consequently we face a very long wait to know more about the inferable history of language families around the globe. One may well ask why. As it happens, in a mathematical PhD thesis from 2010, Alexandre Bouchard-Côté demonstrated why, by showing that even the inference of sound change was computationally infeasible. Bouchard-Côté pointed to two impediments: (1) a factorial explosion in the difficulty of the computational task, and (2) a paucity of evidence when the data consists of a short list of basic vocabulary. However, recent progress in computational statistics provides reason to believe that impediment (1) may be overcome for at least some models of linguistic change. Impediment (2) might be alleviated by allowing the algorithms to look at richer sources of data (as we humans do), such as inflectional paradigms. And so, in this talk I discuss the prospects for trying to automate a core aspect of the comparative method: the inference of sound change and analogy in paradigms, with an emphasis on analogy. I discuss what is already known about analogy; what it might entail to model that knowledge explicitly; the role to be played by mathematical models of language change; and what research questions the exercise might realistically help us to ask.
This talk will take place at 4:15 on Friday 10 January 2020 at SOAS University of London, the Brunei Gallery Building (opposite the Main Building) in Room B103.
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.
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.