[Lingtyp] Call for Papers SLE session: Phonological (in)stability and language evolution

Eitan Grossman eitan.grossman at mail.huji.ac.il
Sun Oct 14 19:22:27 UTC 2018

(Apologies for multiple postings)

Phonological (in)stability and language evolution
SLE Workshop proposal
Convenors: Eitan Grossman & Steven Moran

The aim of this workshop is to explore the stability and instability of
sound patterns, understood here as the set of phonetic and phonological
properties of languages. The inherent stability of linguistic properties
 is a crucial component of any explanation of cross-linguistic and
language-specific distributions, alongside considerations such as the
number, frequency, and complexity of diachronic sources and developmental
pathways (Greenberg 1978, Harris 2008) on the one hand, and the likelihood
of diffusion from speaker to speaker or language to language, on the other.

In particular, the question of stability is an important one because
linguists often draw inferences about human language on the basis of a
sample, whether small and biased or large and balanced in terms of area and
genealogy. Specifically, it would be ideal if linguists could infer the
universal probability (or ‘learnability’) of a linguistic type from the
empirical frequency of that type (Cysouw 2011). The possibility to draw
valid inferences of this sort depends, however, to a large extent on some
version of the uniformitarian assumption, i.e., the idea that ‘human
languages have always been pretty much the same in terms of the typological
distribution of the units that compose them’ (Newmeyer 2002).

The uniformitarian assumption has been called into question in a number of
ways. For example, Maslova (2000) argued that the assumption of a
stationary distribution, such that the present-day distribution of
linguistic properties in the world’s languages, is independent of an
initial state, and cannot be maintained. As a result, it becomes crucial to
directly target transition probabilities between types (see also Dunn et
al. 2011, Cysouw 2011, Bickel 2015). Greenberg (1978) observed that
particular distributions might indicate different degrees of inherent
stability. Nichols (1992, 2003) and Wichmann & Holman (2009) provide
concrete measures of the relative stability of cross-linguistically
comparable properties. Of the 137 properties examined, 19 deal with sound
patterns, which show varying degrees of stability. For example, consonant
inventories are rated as ‘very unstable,’ while tone is ‘very stable.’
While these studies provide us with a big picture of the relative stability
of a number of properties, as well as some methodological foundations, we
are still far from understanding the relative stability of a wide range of
sound patterns. In particular, many aspects of (in)stability are
potentially invisible to particular methodologies. For example, it may be
the case that the phonetic precursors of, e.g., three-way length
distinctions or prenasalized stops distinctions, are frequently innovated
by speakers yet are not phonologized. Such frequent but evancescent
innovations were envisioned already by Greenberg (1978), who predicted that
they would be relatively frequent in languages and distributed relatively
evenly among genealogical stocks.

Some proposals have been made about the inherent stability or instability
of particular sound patterns. For example, Jacques (2011) argues that
aspirated fricatives, despite the multiplicity of diachronic sources, are
inherently unstable, due to their tendency to merge with other sounds.
Dediu and Cysouw (2013) find that the feature [round] is unstable, i.e.
hard to get and easy to lose. Blevins (2008) proposes that three-way vowel
nasality distinctions, as in Palantla Chinantec, or three-way length
distinctions, as in Estonian, Saami, or Dinka, may be inherently unstable,
and tend to be eradicated by sound change. On the other hand, coronal
places of articulation for consonants seem to be especially stable, since
total coronal loss is vanishingly rare (Blevins 2009). Moran and Verkerk
(2018) find that consonants and vowels change at different rates, albeit
not uniformly across language families; these findings may point to broad
differences between consonant inventories and vowel inventories in terms of

A crucial issue in studying the stability of sound patterns is the need to
tease apart the relative contributions of - and interactions between -
inheritance, on the one hand, and areal effects, on the other. For example,
it has recently been argued that affricate-dense inventories are inherently
unstable in Eurasia, and tend to simplify unless supported areally
(Nikolaev & Grossman 2018).

Sound patterns are an especially exciting domain for the study of
stability, thanks to the possibility of experimental modelling (Ohala 1995,
Silverman 2006). Another exciting avenue for studies of stability involve
the comparison between the abundant data on reconstructed phonologies of
proto-languages, on the one hand, and on present-day phonologies, on the
other (see, e.g., Marsico et al. 2018, Moran & Verkerk 2018). Phonological
areas provide yet another fascinating domain for research on phonological
(in)stability, to the extent that they can reveal differential,
areally-conditioned, patterns of innovation, loss, and retention.
Furthermore, they allow a detailed examination of simple persistence vs.
‘merry-go-round’ areal stability, in which sound patterns diffuse from
language to language.

Finally, it may be that particular types of sound pattern are ‘attractors,’
i.e., any state that is easier to enter or acquire than to leave or lose,
and/or easier to retain than lose (Nichols 2018). This is essentially a
matter of stability, although it is not clear to what extent the notion of
attractor is explanatory, or requires, in turn, more primitive explanations.

We invite proposals for 20-minute talks that explore the stability of
particular sound pattern types and on any of the following (or related)


   How can the notion of ‘stability’ be defined and operationalized?

   What are the units of analysis in the study of phonological stability
   (phonemes, oppositions, features, etc.)?

   What are the differences between present-day distributions of sound
   patterns and earlier distributions, whether at a global level, at a
   macro-areal level, or at a micro-areal level?

   Can differential rates of change for different types of sound patterns
   be identified, and if so, what explanations explain these differences?

   Are different patterns of (in)stability found in different parts of the
   world or at different stages in the evolution of human language?

   What light can experimental phonetics and phonology shed on

   What light can modelling shed on (in)stability?

   What are the causal links between facts of human physiology and
   cognition, on the one hand, and the (in)stability of sound patterns?

To submit an abstract, please email a PDF (200 words max, plus references)
to Eitan Grossman <eitan.grossman at mail.huji.ac.il> by November 11.

This workshop is intended to take part at the annual meeting of the SLE
(Leipzig, 21-24 August), so it will first go through a preliminary round of
evaluation. If the workshop proposal is successful, the participants will
be asked to submit a full abstract.

Important dates:


   Internal deadline workshop proposal: November 11

   Notification of inclusion in the workshop: November 16

   Notification of acceptance for workshop: December 15

   Deadline submission full abstract if workshop proposal is successful: 15


Bickel, Balthasar. 2015. Distributional typology: Statistical inquiries
into the dynamics of linguistic diversity. In: Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog
(eds.) The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 2nd ed., 901–23. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Blevins, Juliette. 2008. Natural and unnatural sound patterns: A pocket
field guide. In Klaas Willems & Ludovic De Cuypere (eds.), Naturalness and
iconicity in language, 121–148. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Blevins, Juliette. 2009. Another universal bites the dust: Northwest Mekeo
lacks coronal phonemes. Oceanic Linguistics, 48/1: 264-273.

Cysouw, Michael. 2011. Understanding transition probabilities. Linguistic
Typology, 15: 415–431.

Dediu, Dan & Michael Cysouw. 2013. Some structural aspects of language are
more stable than others: A comparison of seven methods. PloS ONE, 8(1),

Dunn, Michael J., Simon J. Greenhill; Stephen C. Levinson; and Russell D.
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Maslova, Elena. 2000. A dynamic approach to the verification of
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Marsico, Egidio, Sebastien Flavier, Annemarie Verkerk & Steven Moran. 2018.
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Moran, Steven & Annemarie Verkerk. 2018. Differential rates of change in
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Nichols, Johanna. 2018. Non-linguistic conditions for causativization as a
linguistic attractor. Frontiers in Psychology 8:2356. doi:

Nikolaev, Dmitry & Eitan Grossman. 2018. Areal sound change and the
distributional typology of affricate richness in Eurasia. Studies in

Ohala, J. J. 1995. A probable case of clicks influencing the sound patterns
of some European languages. Phonetica 52: 160-170.

Silverman, Daniel. (2006). The diachrony of labiality in Trique, and the
functional relevance of gradience and variation. Papers in Laboratory
Phonology VIII.

Wichmann, Søren & Eric Holman. 2009. Assessing temporal stability for
linguistic typological Features. München: LINCOM Europa.
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