[FUNKNET] Query on structural properties

dlevere at ILSTU.EDU dlevere at ILSTU.EDU
Sat Dec 19 08:01:47 UTC 2009

Randy LaPolla's post includes the statement that:
> As each society is unique, each language will be unique

I agree completely. Each culture-grammar pairing is unique.

Randy also says, as Sapir did, that the relationships between current  
states of the grammar and culture are often no longer discoverable. No  
disagreement from me. And no disagreement from me for the rest of  
Randy's post either.

Let me first give a very broad distinction between culture vs.  
society, since I am interested in both, but primarily the former.  
Culture includes the values whereby peoples get meaning out of the  
world around them. Society is largely the set of constraints that  
regulate group behavior. (Very simplistic. Just trying to brush off  
the targets a bit.)

For example, take a culture like the Pirahas. If all the Pirahas  
decided one morning to move to LA, their language would change, their  
values and their constraints would change. Any original connections  
could be lost and we would not even be able to detect this after a  
while. New connections would be developed over time.

This is why it is much more difficult to do field research outside of  
the community, rather than a single speaker in, say, a linguistic  
classroom. (People who list 'field research' on their vitae when they  
have only engaged in the latter are using this term in a sense I  
reject.) Only in the community can the linguist even hope to explore  
the vestiges of values that might have affected grammar. And even  
there it will often be impossible to find testable connections. On the  
other hand, in certain situations around the world, where we find  
monolingual communities in relative geographical and cultural  
isolation (especially when we know something about the period of  
isolation and the conditions leading up to it), it becomes slightly  
more feasible to study culture-grammar connections. These are never  
obvious, always subtle, very difficult to argue for in a non-circular  
manner. But not impossible.

Because each language-culture pairing is unique, the loss of even a  
single language is irrecoverable and tragic for the speakers (if they  
survive the loss) and the rest of the world. Field research is more  
urgent and more important. Field research en loco even more so.

Clifford Geertz was clear in pointing out, as the late, great Peter  
Ladefoged and I tried to be in our paper 'The problem of phonetic  
rarities', that some of the most important lessons from our  
conspecifics come from differences, quirks, oddities, and unexpected  
extensions of the parameters of our linguistic, cognitive, and  
cultural possibilities. Understanding these possibilities is the  
enterprise that I think most of us are committed to. None of us is  
interested in showing that this or that language is inferior to any  
other - any more than a physicist is interested in showing that the  
trajectory of this object through the air was 'inferior' to the  
trajectory of another object. The idea doesn't even make sense to a  
scientist. Rather, I think we are interested in understanding how the  
language works and how it got to be the way it is. Languages have a  
way of evolving to fit their cultural niche, as cultures also evolve  
to fit their languages. Not always possible to see the connections or  
to conclusively establish them. But this co-evolution means that there  
is no such thing as an inferior language, except when it comes to fail  
to fit its niche. But in such cases, the language & culture will  
evolve quickly to fit one another. Evolution in this sense is  
on-going. Grammaticalization is one part of it.

In this enterprise, it is also vital (but rarely possible) that field  
research be conducted in teams of linguists, anthropologists, and  
psychologists. If Sapir was right, psychology and linguistics are  
subfields of anthropology. Still not a bad idea.


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  

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 (????
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

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