Pudding Seminar: Eve Canning (JCR, Linguistics): ‘The stories of our lives: Evidence from linguistic phylogenetics, syntax, and language contact’

For almost two centuries, linguists have inferred the relationships between languages from intuitions regarding shared vocabulary items and sound changes, and represented these inferences using family trees. This process has been aided in the 21st century by computational methods, but this work has remained almost entirely focused on vocabulary — a ‘shallow’ and changeable aspect of language. In recent years, a new methodology has been developed to infer phylogenies for languages from elements of their syntax, such as their word order. This ‘Parametric Comparison Method’ has the potential to reach further back into linguistic history, but there is a significant gap in the published literature. The potential impact of language contact and the borrowing of elements from one language into another has been largely dismissed, considered only as an issue to be overcome in order to return a true genetic phylogeny. In order to better understand how language contact might be represented in quantitative syntactic data, I created a novel syntactic database by combining existing sources, computationally generated family trees from this database, and examined these trees for evidence of potential language contact. I will present the results of this study, which suggest that the Parametric Comparison Method can be a useful tool for identifying language contact leading to syntactic transfer. Furthermore, I argue that language contact should be embraced as an essential component of the story of any speech community, promoting a view of human history which considers not only the differences and divisions but also the similarities and connections between peoples.

All staff, students, senior members and alumnae are very warmly invited to attend the Pudding Seminars. Talks usually last between 20-25 minutes, followed by time for questions, comments and discussion before we finish at 1.50pm, to allow people to get to 2pm appointments. Please note that coffee and cake will be available from 1 o’clock with the seminar starting promptly at 1.15pm. Details of all our seminars can be found at: https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/research/pudding-seminars/forthcoming-pudding-seminars/