[Lingtyp] Temporal features?

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Tue Oct 2 04:18:18 UTC 2018

Joseph (and others),

My work on this subject over the last decade or so has been strictly 
bottom-up and inductive.  I did not embark on it in order to support 
some kind of hypothesis relating complexity in the grammatical and 
socio-political domains.  My interests were originally purely 
descriptive/typological; my goals were to measure the degree to which 
thematic roles were grammaticalized in different languages (the 
description), and to try and relate this to other linguistic features 
(the typology).  It was only when I was well into the project that I 
noticed — to my surprise — that the degree of grammaticalization of 
thematic roles, representing one aspect of grammatical complexity, seems 
to correlate with "language size", big languages exhibiting greater 
grammaticalization than smaller ones.  One of my focuses since that 
realization was to try and define exactly what the factors were that 
made a language "big" or "small".  At first I went with population size, 
which worked kind of okay.  But then I wondered whether the relevant 
factors may be more qualitative than quantitative — which took me to 
Palauan: "small" in population size, but "big" as a language of a nation 
state.  The results of the experiment pointed clearly towards the latter 
hypothesis, namely that Palauan worked like a "big" language, i.e. it 
was being a national language that counted, not simply the number of 
speakers.  I am still working on trying to come up with the best 
definition of socio-political complexity, which will be one satisfying 
the following two criteria (a) it provides the best fit with the 
experimental results, i.e. the best predictions with respect to the 
degree of grammaticalization of thematic roles, and (b) it provides a 
plausible basis for an causal account for why the correlation should 
exist.  So far, a combination of national / minority language and 
(within the latter) "greater social hierarchy" are the best I've been 
able to come up with.  But if you can suggest a criterion other than 
"greater social hierarchy" that does a better job, I'll happily consider it.

With regard to your second point, I am certainly not making claims about 
"wholesale" or global grammatical complexity; I am only talking about 
complexity with respect to one particular grammatical feature, albeit a 
pretty central one, namely complexity of thematic role assignment, as 
manifest in the extent to which different languages allow for varying 
degrees of specification / underspecification of distinctions such as 
agent/patient, core/oblique, and so forth.  This is why I do not 
consider my results as being in contradiction to those of Trudgill, 
Dahl, McWhorter, who argue — convincingly, to my mind — for an inverse 
correlation between language size and complexity in other, quite 
different grammatical domains.


On 02/10/2018 09:18, Joseph Brooks wrote:
> Hi David, Martin, and others,
> I don't quite understand why those four criteria are enough to get us 
> to something we would want to describe in terms of sociopolitical 
> /complexity./ In particular I wonder about assuming that 'greater 
> social hierarchy' necessarily means 'greater social complexity'...  
> Thinking for ex of societal structures and institutions in many 
> acephalous, minimally hierarchical societies in New Guinea (which btw 
> are not also not necessarily hunter-gatherer societies, but also 
> include subsistence agriculturalists for instance). You have things 
> like the men's house, the clan system and its relationship to land 
> tenure rights, exchange relations, kinship, ancestral codes of laws, 
> among other things. So I am wondering what the grounds would be for 
> not taking those things into account, where sociopolitical complexity 
> is concerned.
> Separately I am having a hard time seeing how languages can be 
> considered, in a wholesale sense, as being at intermediate vs advanced 
> stages of complexity. It makes sense to me that particular structures 
> and areas of grammar would tend to be more or less complex, in a way 
> that corresponds to certain social factors (small pop size, social 
> hierarchies, presence/absence of the written medium, etc), but not 
> whole languages. Perhaps it's only the latter idea, and not the 
> former, that was intended?
> Cheers,
> Joseph

David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816

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