[FUNKNET] Query on structural properties

Randy LaPolla r.lapolla at LATROBE.EDU.AU
Sat Dec 19 06:20:10 UTC 2009

On the question of the relationship between culture and cognition on the one
hand, and language structure on the other, while there are times we can find
a ‘smoking gun’ which clearly can show a relationship between some aspect of
culture/cognition and some aspect of the grammar, I don’t think it is very
useful to argue from these cases, as it implies that there are some aspects
of grammar that are related to culture/cognition and some that aren’t, it
implies that the motivation for the grammaticalisation or lexicalisation of
some form is always going to be transparent, and it implies that there is
always a recognisable one-to-one correspondence between some aspect of
culture/cognition and language structure.

If we take grammaticalisation seriously, that is, if we understand that all
aspects of grammar are the result of grammaticalisation, and we understand
that grammaticalisation (and lexicalisation) is the conventionalisation of
repeated patterns of use (using the same form to constrain the addressee’s
interpretation of the speaker’s communicative intention in the same way over
and over again), then there must by logical necessity be a connection
between all conventionalised aspects of language and the culture/cognition
of the speakers, otherwise the speakers would not have used those particular
forms in those particular ways over and over again to constrain the
interpretation of that particular semantic domain in that particular way, to
the extent that the forms became conventionalized. That is, constraining the
interpretation of that particular semantic domain in that way must have been
important for them, important enough for them to put the extra effort into
constraining the interpretation in that way.

It often isn’t possible to see what the motivations for the original
grammaticalisation or lexicalization was, as once something is
conventionalised, it will often stay in the language even after the original
motivation is no longer there (e.g. using dial even though telephone no
longer have dials), and forms can change in shape (e.g. an onomatopoetic
form becoming non-onomatopoetic through sound change) or use (extended in
new ways that reflect a different motivation) once they are
conventionalized. There can also be competing motivations over time, such as
what happened in the loss and re-creation of the singular/plural distinction
of second person pronouns in English.

As each society is unique, each language will be unique in terms of which
semantic domains the speakers will decide to constrain the interpretation of
(e.g. tense or no tense), in terms of the extent to which they will
constrain the interpretation of that particular domain (e.g. one past tense
or three?), and in terms of the particular form used to constrain it. There
is no logical necessity that societies with certain characteristics will
necessarily end up conventionalising the same sorts of structures.


Randy J. LaPolla, PhD FAHA (罗仁地)
Chair of Linguistics
Director, Research Centre for Linguistic Typology

La Trobe University, VIC 3086 AUSTRALIA
Tel.: +61 3 9479-2555; FAX: +61 3 9479-1520
RCLT: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/rclt/
Linguistics: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/linguistics/
The Tibeto-Burman Domain: http://tibeto-burman.net/
Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area: http://stedt.berkeley.edu/ltba/
Location of RCLT: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/rclt/location.htm

From: "Daniel L. Everett" <dlevere at ilstu.edu>
Reply-To: "Daniel L. Everett" <dlevere at ilstu.edu>
Date: Fri, 18 Dec 2009 21:11:12 -0500
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Query on structural properties

Dear All,
The remarks by Tom and Joan are, as one would expect, extremely useful and
Let me address myself first to Tom.  Tom suggests that my research program
is Whorfian. In fact, it is the opposite of Whorf. Whereas Whorf, Sapir,
Herder, and others raised the question of the degree of influence that
grammar could have on cognition, my program, suggested a bit by Boas and
Sapir, is mainly concerned with how culture can affect grammar. As far as I
know, Whorf never concerned himself with the effects of culture on grammar.
Here is a summary of various positions:
Cognition, Grammar, Culture Connections
 Constraint Relationship  Representative Theory
 1. cognition  -->     grammar  Chomsky's Universal Grammar
 2. grammar   -->      cognition  Linguistic Relativity (Whorf)
 3. cognition  -->    culture  Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work on color
 4. grammar  -->    culture  Greg Urban's work on discourse-centered culture
 5. culture    -->  cognition  Long term effects on thinking of cultural
restrictions on certain behaviors
 6. culture    -->    grammar  Ethnogrammar; individual forms structured by
I believe that there are different, yet non-exclusive, relations between
culture, cognition, and grammar.  My program, such as it is, falls under
number 6. I think that box number one is probably the null set, though it
might have something in it that no one has yet discovered. The others are
all active and viable connections, each associated with a different research
program. I discuss this all in more detail in my book, Don't sleep there are
snakes, which is now available in Korean (Courrier), in the UK (Profile) and
in the USA (Pantheon and Vintage), and soon to be available in German
(February - 
043078/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259941204&sr=8-3), French, Thai,
Mandarin, and Japanese.
Grammaticalization clearly is relevant in 'freeze framing' various
connections, including culture and grammar. Nothing in my own thought or
research is incompatible with grammaticalization. It plays a vital role in
any complete theory of diachronic or synchronic linguistics.
Tom's term -  'society of intimates' - has been very helpful to me. The Utes
might be a society of intimates. The Pirahas certainly are. So why aren't
all societies of intimates grammatically similar? Why doesn't Ute have the
characteristics of Piraha or vice-versa? Because no single cultural value is
going to be responsible for all the culture-grammar connections one might
discover. Culture, like Language, is an abstraction, an idealization. In
Everett and Sakel (to appear), we propose a methodology for studying linkage
between grammatical chararacteristics and cultural characteristics. One must
first identify cultural values, in a non-circular manner, and then identify
grammatical phenomena. We then suggest ways of establishing non-circular
connections and relations of causality between such pairs. Piraha is not
only a society of intimates, but it has a particularly strong value of
'immediacy of experience'. I discuss such issues in more detail in Don't
If Piraha has suffered some sort of cultural trauma, e.g. the conquest by
Europeans that began in the 16th century, then this certainly could have
dramatically affected their culture and its connections with their
language/grammar/grammatical constructions. On the other hand, we know that
their culture and language today look pretty much like they did in 1784,
when the first written records begin to appear. So whatever their culture &
language were like before then, that is irrelevant to the fact that they
have been in a relative period of stasis since then.
Diachronic studies and grammaticalization are vital to my program
ultimately. This is because I simply want to understand language as well as
I can. Because I do not believe in Universal Grammar or much at all in the
way of genetic constraints on the shapes of grammars, I have to look to
other explanans for similarities between languages of the world. This is in
fact the subject of my book, Cognitive Fire: Language as  a Cultural Tool,
to appear in late 2010 (Pantheon in the US, Profile in the UK).
Joan - thanks for the reference!
Ultimately, I see nothing incompatible with anything Tom has said and what I
have said. I simply believe that culture plays a larger part than some other
linguists do in shaping grammar and other aspects of cognitive life.

Yesterday, GEO magazine published a large story about my work in German (it
will ultimately appear in all 20 languages in which GEO is published). In
that story, Chomsky says that it is ridiculous to think that culture could
affect grammar because three year olds know nothing/little about culture and
much about grammar. That seems false. Much of culture is learned and
transmitted nonverbally from birth. Perhaps before birth. I give examples in
Everett (2008).

I believe that all humans are born with a similar genetic endowment,
encompassing intelligence, body size, etc. I am not 'searching for primitive
languages'. I am interested in learning more about the culture-grammar
interface as one part of the symbiosis between grammar, culture, and


Everett, Daniel L. and Jeanette Sakel. forthcoming. Linguistic Fieldword: A
Student Guide. Cambridge University Press, Red Series.

Everett, Daniel L. 2008. Don't sleep there are snakes: life and language in
the Amazonian jungle. Vintage Departure Series.

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