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Explanation in typology: Diachronic sources, functional motivations and the nature of the evidence

Schmidtke-Bode, Karsten; Levshina, Natalia; Michaelis, Susanne Maria; Seržant, Ilja A.

This volume provides an up-to-date discussion of a foundational issue that has recently
taken centre stage in linguistic typology and which is relevant to the language sciences
more generally: To what extent can cross-linguistic generalizations, i.e. statistical universals of linguistic structure, be explained by the diachronic sources of these structures?
Everyone agrees that typological distributions are the result of complex histories, as “languages evolve into the variation states to which synchronic universals pertain” (Hawkins 1988). However, an increasingly popular line of argumentation holds that many,
perhaps most, typological regularities are long-term reflections of their diachronic sources, rather than being ‘target-driven’ by overarching functional-adaptive motivations.
On this view, recurrent pathways of reanalysis and grammaticalization can lead to uniform synchronic results, obviating the need to postulate global forces like ambiguity
avoidance, processing efficiency or iconicity, especially if there is no evidence for such
motivations in the genesis of the respective constructions. On the other hand, the recent
typological literature is equally ripe with talk of ‘complex adaptive systems’, ‘attractor
states’ and ‘cross-linguistic convergence’. One may wonder, therefore, how much room
is left for traditional functional-adaptive forces and how exactly they influence the diachronic trajectories that shape universal distributions. The papers in the present volume
are intended to provide an accessible introduction to this debate. Covering theoretical,
methodological and empirical facets of the issue at hand, they represent current ways
of thinking about the role of diachronic sources in explaining grammatical universals,
articulated by seasoned and budding linguists alike.

 

 

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