[Lingtyp] Temporal features?

Bohnemeyer, Juergen jb77 at buffalo.edu
Sun Sep 30 14:39:43 EDT 2018

Dear Ian — Thanks for a great question! Are certain properties of individual languages typologically more prevalent at certain time periods than others? As far as I’m aware, all empirical research, and even “theorizing” (hypothesizing, really), that has intersected with this question has done so solely with a simpler version of it: Are certain properties of individual languages typologically more or less prevalent now than they were at earlier stages of the cultural evolution of human language? 

In this version, what is being compared is the distribution of the property in question as we can observe it now against the (hypothesized or reconstructed) distribution at some point in time that is substantially closer to the temporal origin point(s) of the currently extant languages (and I consider neither the question whether there is one single such origin point nor the one as to what members of the hominid lineage can rightfully be considered speakers of the earliest languages in the sense of language as we know it settled). I suspect we lack sufficient data to address the broader question you raised beyond this narrower version, comparing arbitrary points in time.

Now, the narrower question has drawn particularly intense attention in phonology over the past 20 or so years. In addition to the literature Eitan Grossman mentioned, let me point to at least three strands of research:

* Dediu & Ladd’s (2007) work on a possible genetic marker codistributed with tone languages and the follow up studies it generated;

* The debate over the prehistory of clicks (Tishkoff et al 2007; Sands & Güldermann 2009, Dimmendaal 2011; inter alia);

* Various attempts at temporally projecting the evolution of phoneme inventories/diversity, including Atkinson 2011 and Perreault & Matthews 2012.

Now, outside phonology, I wanted to mention an area of study that some consider part of the lexicon, others part of the grammar, and that in my view belongs to neither (it doesn’t form part of the grammar in the narrow sense of a combinatorial system), but rather to practices of language use: spatial referencing systems. Largely still unpublished work by my collaborators and myself in the second MesoSpace project (NSF BCS-1053123) suggests that the preference for egocentric reference frames in small-scale space is restricted to European languages and a few other languages spoken in globalized post-industrial societies, including Japanese and Mandarin. 

At the same time, our own work and a number of earlier small-scale studies have uncovered a number of populations that exhibit apparent mismatches between their behavior in verbal and in nonverbal tasks, with the former suggesting either unrestricted use of frame types or a preference for intrinsic frames, while the latter point in most cases toward a geocentrism bias. We think that this is line with the hypothesis of an innate geocentrism bias that in some populations gets overridden by a culturally (including notably linguistically) transmitted preference for egocentric frames. The hypothesis of the innate geocentrism bias and the cultural override was first proposed by Haun et al (2006) on the basis of research with non-human primates and human infants. Our typological evidence seems to support this idea. 

In addition, our regression models show that egocentrism is boosted independently by literacy and population density, whereas geocentrism is boosted by the availability of salient typological landmarks, the latter in line with Palmer et al (2017). All this evidence is consistent with an evolutionary scenario under which human populations would have until perhaps just a few millennia ago made no more than marginal use of egocentric frames (especially the subtype of egocentric frames Levinson calls ‘relative’) in both discourse and nonverbal cognition. Egocentrism would have developed and spread as a cultural adaptation once small-scale space became more clearly separated from geographic space as a domain, with speech, gesture, and other observable behaviors acting as transmission systems. At the same time, established practices of geocentrism within a community would counteract the spread of egocentrism (so it would be quite misleading to think of geocentric populations as less advanced compared to egocentric ones; especially as egocentric and geocentric strategies each have their strengths and weaknesses).

Best — Juergen (apologies for the long response!)

Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. Science 332: 346–349.

Dediu, D., & Ladd, D. R. (2007). Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin. PNAS, 104, 10944-10949.

Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. 2011. Historical linguistics and the comparative study of African languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Haun, D. B. M., C. Rapold, J. Call, G. Janzen, & S. C. Levinson. (2006). Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in hominid spatial cognition. PNAS 103: 17568–17573.  

Palmer, B., Lum, J., Schlossberg, J., et al. (2017). How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography . Linguistic Typology, 21(3), pp. 457-491. 

Perreault, C., & Mathew, S. (2012). Dating the Origin of Language Using Phonemic Diversity. PLoS ONE, 7(4), e35289. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035289

Sands, Bonny & Tom Güldermann. 2009. What click languages can and can’t tell about language origins. In The cradle of language, ed. by Rudolf Botha & Chris Knight, 204-218. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tishkoff, Sarah A., Mary Katherine Gonder, Brenna M. Henn, Holly Mortensen, Alec Knight, Christopher Gignoux, Neil Fernandopulle, Godfrey Lema, Thomas B. Nyambo, Uma Ramakrishnan, Floyd A. Reed, Joanna L. Mountain; History of Click-Speaking Populations of Africa Inferred from mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Variation, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 24, Issue 10, 1 October 2007, Pages 2180–2195, https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msm155

> On Sep 30, 2018, at 12:04 AM, Joo Ian <ian.joo at outlook.com> wrote:
> Dear all,
> We all know that languages spoken in a certain area (for example, Mainland Southeast Asia) tend to share areal features. But what about time? Do languages spoken at a certain time period, such as say, Bronze Age, share a certain feature distinct from the features of languages spoken during, say, Iron Age?
> If so, then would a sample of languages spoken only at a certain time period (such as the 21st century) also be a temporally biased sample, similar to how a sample of languages spoken only in Europe would be an areally biased sample?
> In order to create a trully non-biased sample of languages, is it also necessary to avoid temporal bias?
> I can think of several “temporal features”:
> 	• Vocabulary. Languages spoken before the 20th century would not have any words referring to “computer.” Bronze Age languages would have no words related to iron.
> 	• Metaphors. Some have argued that some metaphors, such as TIME IS MONEY, arose only via industrialization (although I have argued against this, claiming that it has also existed in Classical Chinese)
> 	• Gender-bias. Most languages we speak today are biased towards male, for example the generic pronoun being the masculine singular pronoun. But in the 21st century, where we strive for gender equality, we see that there are conscious changes being made to fix this gender-bias.
> But in terms of syntax, morphology, phonology, etc. are there specific temporal features?
> I would appreciate any insights on this issue.
> From Hong Kong,
> Ian Joo
> http://ianjoo.academia.edu
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Juergen Bohnemeyer, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies 
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University at Buffalo 

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