Typological progress

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Truly, this is the golden age of linguistic blogging. The past week has seen three incredible breakthroughs in the area of typology, all based on discoveries announced in weblog posts.

The first discovery came from Claire Bowern, "Language of the Week: DIY", Anggarrgoon, 5/6/2008. DIY is the ISO 639-3 code for Diuwe, where (as Claire noted) "the sole comment is 'below 100 meters'". This led her to propose the bold hypothesis that "altitude affects air stream mechanisms", since the "consonant inventory [of Diuwe] contains 3 stops, four fricatives, 5 laterals, six approximants and seven vowels". (Though Claire didn't mention it, I've heard on the grapevine that Diuwe's vowel inventory consists entirely of three nasal affricates.)

Claire's bombshell was quickly followed by an equally striking discovery about altitude as a determinant of linguistic structure: Mark Dingemanse's "The Hidbap language of PNG", posted at The Ideophone on 5/7/2008.

Hidbap is Diuwe's closest neighbour both geographically and phylogenetically. It is a language spoken above 100m but below 200m in the same area as Diuwe, that is, 12 miles southwest of Sumo, east of the Catalina River. Like Diuwe, it has exactly 100 speakers. The languages are quite closely related, though there is no mutual intelligibility due to the presence of a large bundle of isoglosses at the 100m isoline. […]

Hidbap has a phoneme inventory which is quite similar to that of Diuwe as far as places of articulation go, but the consonants, rather than being pulmonic egressive as in Diuwe, are all implosives and ejectives.

And the most extraordinary report of all was Lev Michael's "Cultural constraints on Aharip grammar", posted at Greater Blogozonia on 5/8/2008:

Recent research on Aharip, one of the typologically remarkable languages of the Mt. Iso area of Papua New Guinea, has revealed striking evidence in support of recent proposals that a people's culture can significantly affect the grammar of the language spoken by that people (Everett 2005). In particular, the culture of the Aharip, who live between the 300 and 400 meter isoclines of Mt. Iso, appears to prohibit any direct reference to immediate experience. Instead Aharip culture appears to be governed by a 'Distant Experience Principle' (DEP).

The cultural and grammatical consequence of the DEP are wide-ranging, including a tense system that distinguishes only distant future and distant past tenses. One of the most remarkable findings regarding Aharip grammar, however, is the absence of any grammatical structures lacking recursion.

[…]

The Aharip numeral system also shows the consequences of the DEP, in that it consists solely of transfinite numbers and infinitesimals.

As far as linguistic anthropologists have been able to determine, all Aharip utterances consist of quotations of creation myths and science fiction novels, the meanings of which are inferred on the basis of culture-specific communicative maxims, including the Maxim of Vast Quantities.



13 Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Would that be the Mt. Iso that was first mapped by the intrepid geographer Dr. Cline?

  2. farbstudie said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 11:04 am

    "One of the most remarkable findings regarding Aharip grammar, however, is the absence of any grammatical structures lacking recursion."

    Must be a talkative people. Since every grammatical structure necessarily is recursive, once a grammatical utterance is started it can never finish!

  3. Chris Crawford said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    I too have fallen prey to the irresistible urge to exploit the reference to isoclines on Mt. Iso. Does this mean that there are popocatepetlclines near Mexico City?

    More seriously, though, I request that you give us neophytes some broader hints when you indulge in humor. I'm too ignorant to catch the finer points, and the only indication that this was a joke was the statement that "all Aharip utterances consist of quotations of creation myths and science fiction novels". So I consulted the original reference and finally figured it out. Perhaps a concluding remark along the lines of "You know, humor: Ar! Ar!"

  4. John Lawler said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    No, that was Dr Klein-Barr, discoverer of Klein-Barr Syndrome, now known to also be the reason for the strange typological phenomena on display in Moundsbar (http://www.umich.edu/~archive/linguistics/texts/papers/metalleus).

  5. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    So, what would happen if the Aharip and the Piraha were to come into contact? Annihilation of both tribes in an explosion of released energy? That would be something to see.

    Do the Aharip also have basic color terms for every distinguishable hue on the visible light spectrum?

  6. Sili said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    Diuwe and Hidbap at Mt Iso.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    @farbstudie: No, because Arahip allows (and frequently requires) two clauses to include each other. For example, a sentence that looks like "X Y" will usually contain two clauses, one headed by X and having Y as a right-branched complement, and one headed by Y and having X as a left-branched complement. (As you might expect, all Arahip complementizers are also coordinators, and vice versa, except for some loans. And the sequence-of-tense and sequence-of-mood rules are too complex and irrelevant to be described in any other language.)

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

    —"So, what would happen if the Aharip and the Piraha were to come into contact? Annihilation of both tribes in an explosion of released energy? That would be something to see."—–

    But they never will come into conflict, which is why the language has the Distant Experience Principle' (DEP).

    Indeed this explains why the Aharip chose Distant Experience instead of the much peppier Proximal Experience Priniciple. If you think about it, in a language that only has one of the two, the only thing distinguishing them will be the name.

  9. Geoff Nathan said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    All in favor of the resolution:

    "Mark doesn't have enough to do."

    please raise your hands.

    Motion carries. Thank you.

    And, while we're at it, honor must be paid to the Caucasian language (referenced either in Studies out in left field or in one of McCawley's whimsical leaflets) where there is one vowel, which is pronounced with ceremony once a year.

  10. Mark Donohue said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

    Diuwe is a northern Asmat language; it's not spoken in Papua New Guinea (/PNG), and the nearest relative is probably Citak. It does have three stops, but only three fricatives, one approximant and no laterals. 6 vowels, maybe 7. Possibly no nasals, depending on the analysis you take (if no nasals, then 5 stops).

  11. Charlie C said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 8:01 am

    … consists solely of transfinite numbers and infinitesimals.
    Wa! The perfect language for haggling in the marketplace! Hmmm, I think it already happens in China.

  12. nprnncbl said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    Are these spoken on Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius?

  13. Maria said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    "consists solely of transfinite numbers and infinitesimals."

    Sounds right out of a Borges story.

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