Thursday, December 22, 2016


December is traditionally a month for looking back. I have been looking back quite far for an abstract on causative motion for a conference in Paris next year. During my PhD, I collected data on both non-causative motion (Robin ran out of the house) and causative motion (Alice threw the book out the window), but I never did anything with the causative data. If the abstract is accepted, maybe I can finally do something with it.

Coding things up for the abstract lead me to go even further back. Among the causative motion sentences selected from my parallel corpus, I included a resultative:

"A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red." (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

To paint something red is a resultative construction :). Resultatives were the topic of my MA thesis completed now seven years ago, and they have always kept a special place in my heart. They are one of three types of secondary predication:

Manner predication:  Sue walked slowly
Depictive:                  Lisa ate her vegetables raw
Resultative:               Melissa cut the grass short

Secondary predicates 'attach' to a normal predicative constituent that encodes an event, here walk, eat, and cut, and expres a state or a property regarding that event, here slow, raw, and short. They are well-known in construction grammar and generative linguistics, but in typology, major cross-linguistic work has only been done on manner predication by Flora Loeb-Diehl in her dissertation "The typology of manner expressions" from 2005.

Given that I'm not doing anything with secondary predication for the foreseeable future, I thought a little typology of the 'to paint red' resultative from Alice in translation in a few Indo-European languages would be a nice Christmas read for (perhaps one of) you.

The strategies used to translate the English construction 'to paint red' vary along several different axes. To start with the closest relatives of English, these are the Dutch, German, and Swedish translations (apologies for poor gloss alignment):

Er   stond              een            grote rozenboom  bij de 
ER stand.PST.SG INDF.ART big    rose.tree      by  DEF.ART
ingang    van de            tuin;     de            rozen    die
entrance of    DEF.ART garden DEF.ART rose.PL DEM
eraan  groeiden        waren           wit     maar er   waren            drie    grow.PST.PL COP.PST.PL white but    ER COP.PST.PL three
tuinlieden     druk  aan de             gang om ze    rood te   schilderen.
gardener.PL busy  on   DEF.ART  way  to   3PL red    TE paint.INF

Ein                              hoher                     Rosenstock        stand                  nah 
INDEF.ART.M.NOM  high.M.SG.NOM  rose.tree.M.SG  stand.3SG.PST  close
dem                       Eingang               zum                         Garten:
DEF.ART.M.DAT  entrance.M.DAT  to.DEF.ART.M.DAT  garden.M.DAT
die                           Rosen                   die   daran  wuchsen          waren         weiß   aber 
DEF.ART.PL.NOM  roses.F.NOM.PL  that    grow.3PL.PST  is.3PL.PST  white  but
drei    Gärtner                      waren         dabei               sie            geschäftig  rot  an-zu-streichen.
three  gardener.M.NOM.PL  is.3PL.PST  in.the.process  3PL.ACC  busily         red  on-to-paint.INF

Vid  ingång-en                     stod            ett                    stort   rosenträd.     Ros-orna            
by    entrance-SG.DEF.UT  stand.PST  INDF.ART.NT large  rose.tree.SG  rose-PL.DEF.UT
som                         växte         på  det        var                vit-a             men
which.REL.PRON  grow.PST  on  3SG.N be.PST.COP  white-DEF  but
tre     trädgårdsmästare  var                sysselsatt-a      med  att  måla          dem         röd-a
three gardener.PL           be.PST.COP  occupy-ADV  with  to   paint.INF  3PL.OBJ  red-DEF

Dutch, German, and Swedish all make use of an adjective as a secondary predicate, similar to the English original. This can be an invariable form, as in Dutch, or the adjective can agree with the noun for 'roses' in terms of definiteness, person, gender, case, etc., as in Swedish. This 'bare' adjective strategy is quite big in Europe: in my MA thesis, I note that this is possible in Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, and Spanish too. It is indeed used in the Greek translation:

Mia                               megal-i                  triantafylli-a              fytron-e
INDF.ART.F.NOM.SG  large-F.NOM.SG  rose.tree-F.NOM.SG grow-PST.IPFV.3SG
kont-a        s-tin                                 eisod-o                      toy                                 perivoli-oy. 
near-ADV  in-DEF.ART.F.ACC.SG  entrance-F.ACC.SG  DEF.ART.M.GEN.SG  garden.M-GEN.SG
Ta                               triantafyll-a           tis                 itan              aspr-a
alla  ypirch-an                   kont-a         tis                treis                 kipoyr-oi                      poy   me 
but   exist.PST.IPFV-3PL  near-ADV  3SG.F.OBJ  three.M.NOM  gardener-M.NOM.PL  who  with
poly-aschol-o                yf-os                    ta              e-vaf-an                            kokkin-a.
very-busy-N.ACC.SG   look-N.ACC.SG  3PL.OBJ  PST-paint-PST.IPFV.3PL  red-N.ACC.PL

And also in Irish:

Bhí       crann   mór   róis            ina                        sheasamh  gar   do  gheata
is.PST  tree      great  rose.GEN  in.3SG.M.POSS  standing    near  to  gate
an              ghairdín:       is       geal    a                  bhí        na                   rósanna
DEF.ART  garden.GEN COP  white  REL.PART  is.PST  DEF.ART.PL  rose.PL
ag  fás             air                  ach  bhí       triúr   gairneoirí             ina
at   grow.INF  on.3SG.M/N  but  is.PST  three  gardner.GEN.PL  in.3SG.M/N.POSS
thimpeall       agus  iad            go               gnóthach  á                bpéinteáil   dearg.
surrounding   and   3PL.OBJ  ADJ.PART busy         3PL.POSS  paint.INF  red

But not in Italian:

Presso  l’-entrata                                   del                            giardino 
near     DEF.ART.F.SG-entrance.F.SG  of.DEF.ART.M.SG  garden.M.SG
c’-er-a                      un         grande  rosaio:               vi        cresce-v-ano
there-be.IPFV-3SG  one.M  big.SG  rose.tree.M.SG  there   grow-IPFV.PST-3PL
rose           bianche      ma  c’-er-ano                  tre      giardinieri         tutti  indaffarati 
rose.F.PL  white.F.PL  but  there-be.IPFV-3PL  three  gardener.M.PL  all    busy.M.PL
a   diping-er-le                  di   rosso.
to  paint-INF-ACC.F.3PL of  red

Italian uses a combination of a preposition and an adjective meaning 'red'. This strategy is in fact used by all other Romance translations, even though the 'bare' adjective strategy is supposedly possible as well:

Un                   grand   rosier          se                 trouv-ai-t              près  de 
ART.INDF.M  big.M  rose.tree.M  REFL.3SG  found-IPFV-3SG  near  to
l'entrée                        du                       jardin:      ses                 rose-s 
ART.DEF.F-entrance  of.ART.DEF.M  garden.M  3PL.F.POSS  rose.F-PL
ét-ai-ent          blanche-s     mais  trois   jardinier-s     s-'affair-ai-ent
be-IPFV-3PL  white.F-PL  but     three  gardener-PL  REFL.3PL-be.busy-IPFV-3PL
à    les           peindre     en  rouge.
to  3PL.OBJ  paint.INF  in  red

Perto  d-a                          entrada       d-o                            jardim      estava
near   of-DEF.ART.F.SG  entrance.F  of-DEF.ART.M.SG  garden.M  be.IND.IPFV.3SG
uma                      grande  roseira        com  rosa-s        branca-s,     mas  havia                              três
INDF.ART.F.SG  large     rosebush.F  with  rose.F-PL  white.F-PL  but three
jardineiro-s        muito  atarefado-s               a    pintar-em-na-s                            de  vermelho.
gardener.M-PL  very    burden.PTCP.M-PL  to  paint.INF-PERS.3PL-OBJ.3F-PL  of  red.M

Un                 arbust                     stufos  de  trandafir-i           se                 înălț-a
INDF.M.SG  shrub.M.NOM.SG bushy  of   rose-M.ACC.PL REFL.3SG  go.up-IPFV.3SG
aproape  de  intrar-ea                       în  grădină;                  trandafir-i-i                    înflori-seră 
near        of  entry-F.ACC.SG.DEF  in  garden.F.ACC.SG  rose-M.NOM.PL-DEF  bloom-PPRF.3PL
alb-i         dar   trei    grădinar-i                    dădeau              zor     pe  lângă    arbust
white-PL  but  three  gardener-M.NOM.PL  give.IPFV.3PL  haste  on  shrub.M.NOM.SG
și     vops-eau          florile                             în  roșu.
and  dye-IPFV.3PL  flower.F.ACC.PL.DEF  in  red

Perhaps the Romance translations can be related to the Latin translation, which uses the ablative case marker. Latin also uses a nominal construction, pigmento rubro 'red paint', rather than just the adjective. Many more languages do this, especially those with case-marked adjectives.

Prope              adit-um                       hort-i                        arbor  entrance-M.ACC.SG  garden-M.GEN.SG  tree.F.NOM.SG
ros-arum            magn-a                 sit-a                                    est 
rose-F.GEN.PL  large-F.NOM.SG  lie-PASS.PFV.F.NOM.SG  be.PRS.3SG
in  ea                 ros-ae                  alb-ae                    er-ant 
in  3SG.F.ABL  rose-F.NOM.PL  white-F.NOM.PL  be-IPFV.3PL
sed  tr-es                        hort-i                         cultor-es                     
but   three-M.NOM.PL  garden-M.GEN.SG   grower-M.NOM.PL
eas                pigment-o             rubr-o                strenu-e        ping-ebant
3PL.F.ACC   paint-N.ABL.SG  red-N.ABL.SG  active-ADV  paint-IPFV.3PL

Other languages that use the adposition strategy common in the Romance languages are Breton:

E-tal       toull             al                liorzh               e           oa                    ur
in-front   hole.M.SG   DEF.ART   garden.M.SG   PART   be.PST.AUX   INDF.ART
bod-roz:                        gwenn        e         oa                     ar               roz            anezh-añ 
bush.M.SG-rose.F.PL   white.ADJ  PART  be.PST.AUX   DEF.ART  rose.F.PL   of-3SG.M.OBJ
met  tri       liorzhour            a          oa                   a-zevri         ouzh  o           livañ         e    ruz.
but   three   gardener.M.SG  PART  be.PST.AUX  really.ADV  to       PROG  paint.INF  in   red.ADJ

Albanian uses the instrumental preposition me (and again a nominal, 'red colour', rather than simply the adjective 'red'):

Pranë  hyrjes                                së  kopshtit                            kishte                    një
near     entrance.F.DEF.DAT.SG  of  garden.M.DEF.DAT.SG  have.IMPRF.3SG  INDF.ART
shkurre                          të                          madhe                         trëndafilash.
Aty    lulëzonin                 lule                                   të                           bardha                             që
there  bloom.IMPRF.3PL  flower.F.INDF.NOM.PL  INDF.F.NOM.PL  white.F.INDF.NOM.PL  that
tre      kopshtarë                               lodheshin                              gjithë  ditën                          duke
three  gardener.M.INDF.NOM.PL   get.tired.PASS.IMPRF.3PL  all       day.F.DEF.ACC.SG  by
i                        lyer                     me    ngjyrë                            të                          kuqe.

Hindi does the same with the instrumental se (and yet again a nominal, 'red paint'):

baġīce               ke                praveśdvar  ke               nazdīk            hī         gulāb     ka           ek
garden.M.OBL  GEN.OBL  entrance.M  GEN.OBL  nearby.ADV EMPH  rose.M  GEN.M  DEF.ART
baṛa             peṛ       thā.                   is-me                         safed           gulāb    lage
big.ADJ.M  tree.M  be.PST.M.SG  3SG.PROX.OBL-in  white.ADJ  rose.M  attach.PFV.PTCP.M.PL
the,                           par  tīn      mālī                  in-kī                                    pankhuṛiyoṃ
be.AUX.PST.M.PL  but  three  gardener.M.PL  3SG.PROX.OBL-GEN.F  petal.F.PL.OBL
ko      lāl           rang       se      rangane              meṃ  vyast          the.
DAT  red.ADJ  paint.M  with  paint.OBL.INF  in       busy.ADV  be.PST.M.PL

Persian uses the dative postposition be in combination with a nominal:

yek  deraḵt-e      gol-e           sorḵ-e        bozorg  dar  qesmat-e    vorud-i               bāġ 
a       tree-of.EZ  rose-of.EZ  red-of.EZ  large     in    part-of.EZ  entrance-INDF  garden
vojud       dāšt:                            gol-hā-ye           ān    sepid-rang      bud 
existence  have.AUX.PST.3SG  rose-PL-of.EZ   that  white-colour   be.COP.PST.3SG
amā  se       bāġ-bān-e                   sar-garm-e              rang=kardan-e 
but    three  garden-keeper-of.EZ  head-warm-of.EZ  colour=make.AUX.INF-of.EZ
gol-hā    be  rang-e            qermez  budand.
rose-PL  to  colour-of.EZ  red         be.PST.3PL

Polish likewise uses the dative na, in combination with an adverbial suffix:

U  wejści-a                     do  ogrod-u                    sta-ło                            spor-e
at  entrance-N.GEN.SG  to  garden-M.GEN.SG  stay.IPFV-PST.3SG.N  fair.sized-N.NOM.SG
drzew-k-o                     różan-e;                          kwit-ły                                 na  nim
tree-DIM-N.NOM.SG  rose(ADJ)-N.NOM.SG  flower.IPFV-PST.3PL.NM  in   3SG.LOC.N
biał-e                         róż-e                        ale  trzech                    ogrodnik-ów               pracowici-e
white-NM.NOM.PL  rose-NM.NOM.PL  but  three.M.GEN.PL  gardener-M.GEN.PL  diligent-ADV
przemalowywa-ło              je                       na  czerwon-o.
repaint.IPFV-PST.3SG.N   3PL.ACC.NM   to  red-ADV

Russian uses the preposition v 'in' and a nominal, 'red colour':

U      vhod-a                        v   sad                            ros                                   bol’š-oj 
near  entrance-SG.M.GEN  in  garden.SG.M.ACC  grow.PST.3SG.M.IPFV  big-SG.M.NOM
rozov-yj                 kust -                      roz-y                na  nem                by-l-i
rose-SG.M.NOM   bush.SG.M.NOM  rose-PL.NOM  on  3SG.M.OBJ   be-PST.IPFV-PL
bel-ye                no   vozle  stoja-l-i                     tri       sadovnik-a               i 
white-Pl.NOM  but  near    stand-PST.IPFV-PL  three   gardener-PL.NOM  and
userdno  kras-i-l-i                     ih              v   al-yj                    cvet.
busily      paint-IPFV-PST-PL   3PL.OBJ  in  red-SG.M.ACC  colour.SG.M.ACC

The remaining languages also use spatial markers to encode that the roses are painted red, but these markers are case markers rather than free-standing adpositions. This true for Latvian (Latvian also uses a nominal):

pie    ieej-as                       dārz-ā                       aug-a                        liels
near  entrance-SG.F.GEN  garden-SG.M.LOC  grow-PST.IND.SG  large.SG.M.NOM
balt-u                    rož-u                   koks                     bet  trīs                dārznieki
white-PL.F.GEN   rose-PL.F.GEN  tree.SG.M.NOM  but  three.NOM   gardener.PL.M.NOM
pašreiz     steidzīgi  ņēmā-s                             pār-krāsot          ziedus                       sarkan-ā 
presently  hastily     undertake-PST.IND.SG   again-paint.INF  blossom.PL.F.ACC  red-SG.F.LOC

Assamese uses the locative case marker -ɔt (and yet again a nominal):

pʰʊl-ɔrɛ            ʊposɪ      tʰɔka ɛ-jʊpa         bɔr daŋɔr  bɔga gʊlap-ɔr    gɔs-ɛ 
flower-MEANS  over.flow-CVP  stay    NUM-CLF  very big    white rose-GEN  tree-NOM
prɔtʰɔmɔtɛ  ɛlɪs-ɔr drɪʃtɪ akɔrxɔn korɪ-lɛ.  kɪntʊ  taɪr 
at.first     alice-GEN attention attract do-3.PST.PFV  but      3.SG.F.GEN
asorjy-ɔr   xima  na-tʰak-ɪl      jetɪya taɪ      dekʰɪ-lɛ         jɛ hat-ɔt 
wonder-GEN limit   NEG-stay-PST   when 3.SG.NOM   see-3.PST.PFV  that hand-LOC
rɔŋ-ɔr       tɛma arʊ bʊrʊʃ  lo-ɪ      tɪnɪ-ta malɪ-ɛ   bɔr 
colour-GEN   container and brush    take-CVP  three-CLF gardener-NOM  great
byɔstɔ  bʰabɛ bɔga   gʊlap-bʊr-ɔt     rɔŋa  rɔŋ  xan-i           pʰʊrɪ-sɛ
busy      way white  rose-CLF-LOC  red   colour  paint-CVP  roam.around-3.PST.PROG

Nepali similarly uses the locative case marker in combination with a nominal:

bagaica  bhitra  pas-ne                   bittikai  us-le           euta   thulo  gulāph-ko   rukh  dekh-i
garden    inside  enter-IPFV.PTCP  soon      3SG-ERG  one    big      rose-GEN  tree    see-PST.3SG.F
jas-mā      gulāph-ka        seta     phul     phul-eka                      thi-e                           tehã   tin-jana
that-LOC  rose-GEN.PL  while  flower  bloom-PFV.PTCP.PL  be.AUX-PST.3PL.F  there  three-CLF
mali         ubhiy-eka                       thi-e                       tiniharu-le  hāt-ma        burus  liyera         euta 
gardener  stand.up-PFV.PTCP.PL  be.AUX-PST.3PL  3PL-ERG  hand-LOC  brush  hold-CVB  one
euta  phul-lāi        gulāphi  rang-mā      rangau-dai     thi-e
one   flower-DAT  red          colour-LOC  colour-PROG  be.AUX-PST.3PL

Armenian uses the instrumental case marker -ov and a nominal:

Partez-i          mutk’-i              mot   ach-el                   er                            mi              mets 
garden-GEN  enterance-DAT  near  grow-PRF.PTCP  be.AUX.3SG.PST  one.INDF  large
spitak  vard-eni.                       Surjy   kangn-ats              yerek’  partizpan
white   rose-tree.NOM.INDF   round  stand-RES.PTCP  three    gardener.NOM.INDF
shtap-shtap              karmir guyn-ov      nerk-um              ein                         vard-er-y.
hurriedly-hurriedly  red       colour-INS  paint-PRS.PTCP  be.AUX.3PL.PST  rose-PL-ACC.DEF

The remaining two languages are different: Lithuanian and Serbo-Croatian both use and adverbial marker, and no nominal, to encode the secondary predicate 'red':

Prie  įėjim-o                         į       sod-ą                        aug-o            didel-is                  rož-ių
near  entrance-SG.M.GEN  into  garden-SG.M.ACC  grow-3.PST  large-SG.M.NOM rose-PL.F.GEN
krūm-as.                Rož-ės                 žydė-jo                      balt-ai           bet  prie   jų 
bush-SG.M.NOM  rose-PL.F.NOM  bloom-3SG.PL.PST  white-ADV  but  near  3PL.GEN
stovė-jo       trys               sodinink-ai              ir     paskubomis   daž-ė             žied-us 
stay-3.PST   three.NOM  gardener-PL.NOM  and  hastily.ADV  paint-3.PST   blossom-PL.M.ACC

Kraj      ulaz-a                          u  vrt                            ras-l-o  entrance-M.GEN.SG  in  garden.M.ACC.SG  grow.IPFV-PST.ACT.PTCP-N.SG
je                   velik-o                 ruž-in-o                        drv-o.                  Ruž-ic-e 
be.PRS.3SG   big-N.NOM.SG  rose-ADJ-N.NOM.SG  tree-N.NOM.SG  rose-DIM-F.NOM.PL
koj-e                    su                 na  njemu           cva-l-e 
bi-l-e                                su                bijel-e                    ali su                 oko
be-PST.ACT.PTCP-F.PL  be.PRS.3PL  white-F.NOM.PL  but  be.PRS.3PL  around
njih           radi-l-a                                            tr-i                         vrtlar-a                       i 
3PL.GEN  work.IPFV-PST.ACT.PTCP-N.PL  three-M.NOM.PL  gardener-M.GEN.SG  and
žuri-l-a                                            se                da ih              što prije
hurry.IPFV-PST.ACT.PTCP-N.PL  REFL.ACC  to  3PL.ACC   as   soon.ADV
o-boj-e                                  crven-o.
PRFX-paint.IPFV-PRS.3PL  red-AD

So, basically we have four classes of translations of 'to paint red':

'bare' adjective:                    Dutch, English, German, Swedish, Greek, Irish
adposition plus adjective:    French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Breton, Albanian, Hindi, Persian,        
                                             Polish, Russian
case marker plus adjective:  Latin, Latvian, Assamese, Nepali, Armenian
adverbial marker:                 Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian

There are of course alternative ways of categorising the data. An alternative would be to code for the case relation that is employed, which would give us another typology:

no case relation:                  Dutch, English, German, Swedish, Greek (well, Greek is accusative
                                             technically), Irish, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian
locative:                               Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Breton, Russian, Latvian,
                                             Assamese, Nepali
ablative:                               Latin
instrumental:                       Albanian, Armenian, Hindi
dative:                                 Polish, Persian

We can also look at the use of a nominal 'red colour' rather than a bare adjective/adverb 'red/red-ly', and find the following split:

'paint red':                            Dutch, English, German, Swedish, Greek, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish,
'paint in red colour':             Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Breton, Russian, Latvian,
                                             Assamese, Nepali, Latin, Albanian, Armenian, Hindi, Persian

The use of a nominal seems clearly related to the use of case marking, so if a language has case marking, it is more likely to use a clause 'paint in a red colour' rather than 'paint it red'. There are probably all kinds of interesting underlying case assignment issues involved.

This is just one sentence in one book, so me including it in my causative motion dataset was really just butterfly collecting. But sometimes it is nice to collect butterflies and these are particularly cool ones :). Merry Christmas - if you have read this far down you especially deserve it!

EDIT: Natalia on Twitter drew my attention to the 2015 dissertation on resultatives in the European languages by Benita Riaubienė, so cool! Riaubienė (2015) discusses resultative strategies in 31 European languages, focusing on telicity, causation, and verb semantics to explain the use of different strategies in different constructions and languages. I am so happy I wrote this post now, otherwise it might have been far longer before I found out about this thesis :).

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Sometimes it is just really nice to remember that there is progress in the description of (some) languages, even though it might take decades.

From Lindblom, Gerhard. (1926) Notes on Kamba Grammar (Archives d’Études Orientales 10). Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri, page 34:

"It was thought, for a long time, that East-African dialects did not have any musical accent, any fixed melody bound to the word as such, as in Swedish, Lituanian, Chinese and other languages. The researches of Meinhof and others have proved the existence of a musical accent in Kishambala and Kinyamwezi. I cannot fully ascertain, whether such an accent exists in Kikamba, but it is certain that there are in the language several words absolutely identical as to the constituent sounds, which in pronunciation are strictly distinguished by the natives. They have often laughed, when I have said the word for 'rust' instead of that for 'guinea-fowl' (see ex. below). As far as I can hear, there is no difference of stress in the following pairs of words, so I suppose there must be some difference of pitch that I have not been able to catch. I give the examples for further research."

From Roberts-Kohno, Rosalind Ruth. (2000) Kikamba Phonology and Morphology. The Ohio State University doctoral dissertation, page 191:

"Kikamba is a Bantu language with four tones: Super-Low (SL), Low (L), High (H), and Super-High (SH)."

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Glamour of Grammar

A quotation from Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics (1998:5) on the shared etymology of the words glamour and grammar, in honour of today's xkcd cartoon:

'Glamour is a changed form of the word grammar, originally in use in Scots English; it meant 'magic, enchantment, spell', found especially in the phrase 'to cast the glamour over one'.  It did not acquire the sense of 'a magical or fictitious beauty or alluring charm' until the mid-1800s.  Grammar has its own interesting history...In Classical Latin, grammatica meant the study of literature broadly.  In the Middle Ages, it came to mean chiefly the study or knowledge of Latin and hence came also to be synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class.  Since this was popularly believed to include also magic and astrology, French grammaire came to be used sometimes for the name of these occult 'sciences'.'

Monday, September 19, 2016

Sound-meaning associations across more than 4000 languages

My friend Damián ‘blasé Damián’ Blasi published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, with Søren Wichmann, Harald Hammarström, Peter Stadler and Morten Christiansen, available here.

The paper was on how there are common sounds that languages across the world tend to use in particular words.  An example is the word ‘nose’, which tends to contain the nasal consonant 'n' more than expected by chance.  The word for 'horn' often has a 'k', reminiscent of the 'bouba/kiki' effect, where people who are asked to use the labels 'bouba' and 'kiki' to describe the two shapes below will tend to use 'kiki' for the jagged shape on the left.

The word for 'small' often has an 'i', as if the lips are being placed together to indicate size in the same way that finger tips can:

The word for 'breast' often has a 'm', the reason for which I will not attempt to speculate on.  People have noticed that words for 'mother' also often have a 'm', although that hypothesis could not be tested here because 'mother' is not in the word list they used.

Stranger associations include 'dog' often having a 's', 'fish' having an 'a', 'star' having a 'z', and 'name' having an 'i'.  The authors also find negative associations, such as 'dog' not tending to use the sound 't'.

Why do these associations occur?  One reason may be that words are often deliberately sound-symbolic.  People are good at tasks such as the bouba/kiki task above, without being able to articulate necessarily what the connection is between shapes and sounds.  Languages can exploit these unconscious connections in forming words, such as English words with fl ('fly', 'flutter', 'fleeting') that have something to do with motion, or gl ('glimmer', 'glitter', 'gleam') to do with light.  Languages can have whole classes of ideophones, words that resemble onomatopoeia ('bang', 'whoosh') but which can be very specific and go beyond sound and describe other senses, such as the Ngbaka Gaya loɓoto-loɓoto 'large animals plodding through mud', Korean 초롱초롱 chorong-chorong 'eyes sparkling', or Siwu nyɛk̃ɛñyɛk̃ɛ̃ 'intensely sweet' (see this review).  

A surprisingly diverse set of meanings can therefore be depicted with sounds, in ways that make a certain intuitive sense.  People can guess the meaning of sound-symbolic terms to some extent, even without knowing the language that they are from.  Other studies have found that people are good at guessing the meaning of words in a foreign language to some extent, for instance which out of the Hungarian words kicsi and nagy means 'big' or 'small', suggesting that even basic, conventionalised vocabulary can retain a sound-symbolic component, conceivably because they are descended from words that were once ideophones.

The intuition that some sounds are more likely to be found in certain words is therefore well-known, but it has not been tested across a large language sample with careful statistical controls before.  The predecessor to this paper was a paper by Wichmann, Holman and Brown (2010) which tested this for the first time, but whose statistical methods are rather strange (including controlling for relatedness by attempting reconstructions of words in proto-languages).  

By contrast, the methods of this new paper are very clear and seem sound.  Besides controlling for language families, which I will return to, the authors tested each association in six different areas of the world independently: Africa, Eurasia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, and (indigenous languages in) Australia, North America and South America.  They only report associations which are positive in at least three independent areas.

Because they didn't know in advance what sounds would be associated with which meanings, they tested every possible association in the data set.  This is a type of multiple testing, and so you can get some associations by accident (such as the number of drownings in pools correlating with number of films Nicholas Cage appeared in each year).  The authors use a correction for this, which Damián once explained to me in its general form: a data set contains many correlations of varying p-values, some accidentally below 0.05 (i.e. spurious correlations), but many other above 0.05 and going as high as 1.  In a completely random data set, a histogram of the p-values of all correlations looks like this, where the number of 'significant' correlations with a p-value below 0.05 isn't actually any higher than you'd expect for any other interval, suggesting that the p-values below 0.05 are due to chance:

By contrast, in a non-random data-set where 20 variables are correlated with one particular variable, there are many more correlations with p-value below 0.05 than in other intervals, as shown by the spike on the left:

You can test every correlation in the data-set and find out what the expected number of false positives are (i.e. the number of p-values that fall in any particular interval).  You can then choose a threshold such as p<0.0001, below which the number of false positives is going to be small, say 5% of the correlations that you report (as the authors do in this paper).

Finally, they control for word length and the rate that a phoneme is expected to appear in other words of the word list.  They find the frequency that a phoneme is found in a particular word using a genealogically balanced average (i.e. treating each family as one datapoint), and compare it with the frequency that the phoneme appears in other words in the word list.  The ratio of the two is in some cases high, if there is an association of that phoneme with a particular concept, and the significance of that association can be computed by comparing this ratio with the ratio obtained by selecting random words from the same languages.  Word length needs to be controlled for as well, because words differ in how long they are on average ('I', 'me' and 'water' are the shortest words in the list cross-lingustically, and 'star' and 'knee' are the longest).  They correct for this by doing the above test but just comparing words of the same length; and then also performing a test with simulated words of the same length, rejecting any associations between a phoneme and a concept which came out as strongly in the simulated data as in the real data.

I have two minor criticisms of their method of controlling for language relatedness.  An association between a phoneme and a meaning can be inflated by families with a lot of languages such as Indo-European, and the authors deal with this problem by treating each known language family (or isolate) as just one data point, by effectively taking the mean value for that family: for instance, about 82% of the Indo-European languages have 'n' in the word for 'nose' by my count, so Indo-European as a whole gets a value of 0.82.  However, this assumes that Indo-European has a completely flat structure, ignoring the fact that languages belong to sub-groups within Indo-European such as Germanic, Romance and so on.  A single branch of the family with a lot of languages can inflate the value, meaning that they are not controlling for non-independence at lower levels in the family.  

A simple correction for this (one that the authors must have considered but for some reason rejected) is to take average values weighted by branch: for example each node in the family tree gets an average value such as 0.94 in Germanic, 0.82 in Romance and so on, and these are averaged to produce a value at the root, the phylogenetic mean.  This can be estimated using the 'ace' function in the R package 'ape', in which Indo-European gets a much higher value of 0.94.

The second problem is that that slower-changing words are more likely to exhibit sound-meaning correspondences by chance.  Some words change very slowly, such as pronouns and numerals.  In those slow-changing words, there is going to be a higher probability of a particular phoneme being found associated with that meaning, simply because those forms are more similar across languages within a family.  It is still unlikely that many spurious correlations will arise in these words, given that each family is one data point, and the association needs to be in three independent areas; but it may perhaps influence some of the stranger sound-meaning associations that they find, such as 'I' having palatal nasals, or 'one' having 'n' or 't'.  

A possible improvement to their method is to not take mean values, such as how many languages use 'n' in the word for 'nose', but to use family trees to reconstruct whether languages in the past used 'n' in the word for 'nose' and how they changed over time.  As a crude example, here is a plot of a set of Eurasian families (Indo-European, Dravidian, Uralic, Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic) in a family tree, using the Glottolog classification and then randomly made into a binary tree with branch-lengths each of 1.  Tips with a yellow dot beside them are languages which have 'n' in the word for 'nose'.  You can then use maximum likelihood reconstruction in the R package 'ape' to reconstruct the probability of each ancestral node having 'n' in the word for 'nose', plotted here below by using blue circles whose sizes are proportional to these probabilities.  For example, Proto-Indo-European is reconstructed as having 'n' in 'nose' with a probability of 0.99, in agreement at least with linguists' reconstructions (Mallory and Adams 2006:175).

You can then calculate the rates of gaining and losing 'n' in 'nose' over time.  The rate of gaining 'n' is 0.17, which is higher than for other phonemes such as 0.05 for 't'.  The idea is that 'n' is gained frequently, suggesting that there is something that causes that sound to be associated with that meaning.  By contrast, the association between 'n' and 'one' seems to be more explicable simply by how slow-changing words for 'one' are, as suggested by the plot below.  The rate of gaining 'n' in 'one' is much lower, 0.02, with languages that have it tending to be retaining this association rather than innovating it (again Proto-Indo-European is reconstructed as having it with 0.99 probability).  Similar results for the rates of change are obtained when language families are not assumed to be related but when this is done just within Indo-European.

The authors may have decided not to use phylogenetic methods because of the apparent crudity of the assumptions that you have to make, in the absence of well-resolved binary trees with branch lengths for most families.  But even the crudest solution to that problem, such as my analysis here in R using maximum likelihood with branch lengths of 1 and randomly binarised trees, is a more accurate model than theirs, which effectively assumes entirely flat trees with no internal structure, branch lengths of 1, and no difference between innovation and retention.  The use of phylogenetic methods makes those assumptions more explicit, not more crude.

There are other minor problems, but these are much harder to solve and topics of ongoing research.  For instance, borrowing between languages can create an association between a phoneme and a meaning within a particular macro-area.  The authors explore this possibility by testing how well nearest neighbouring languages predict the presence of particular associations.  Some associations such as using 's' in the word for 'dog' are indeed more likely to occur in a language if they have an unrelated language nearby which also as 's' in the word for 'dog', suggesting that this particular association may have been inflated by borrowing between some language families.  There is finally the possibility that some language families are related to each other, and hence that some form-meaning associations are inherited from ancestral languages.  This has been argued in particular for pronouns, which often use similar sounds across Eurasia in particular.  While it is difficult to correct for this yet without proper cognate-coding between languages in the ASJP (a task I describe here), the authors explore this by comparing the distribution of sound-meaning associations with similarity of word forms overall (as cognates are expected to be more similar than non-cognates).  They also point out that the opposite point holds, that the existence of sound-meaning correspondences casts doubt on some claims about 'ultra-conserved' words.

Despite these possible issues, it is unlikely that many of the correlations they report are spurious, and the results are interesting both in the hypotheses that they confirm (small and 'i', for example), and in the unexpected associations that they discover. There has been plenty of positive coverage of the paper in the media, with particularly good write-ups in The Economist here, The Guardian here, and the Scientific American here.  Science Daily had the witty headline 'A nose by any other name would sound the same', which was also used by the Washington Post and other venues.  The Telegraph and The Sun opted for incoherent clickbait such as 'Humans may speak a universal language, scientists say'. 

While the research does not exactly point to a universal language, it does show that humans are good at perceiving links between form and meaning and use these in language far more than previously thought.  It is not necessarily true that these usages are conscious, and speakers may not be aware that there is anything potentially sound-symbolic about the 'n' in 'nose', for example.  One might speculate that sound-meaning associations are in some cases relics of more consciously sound-symbolic terms such as ideophones.  Another possibility is that words which carry a particular suitable phoneme may be more easily learnt, or somehow preferred in everyday language use, even if this behaviour is unconscious.  Blasi et al.'s paper raises the intriguing question of how associations such as 'n' in 'nose' have come about historically and what it is about speakers' behaviour that favours them.  The other exciting contribution of their paper is a set of sound-meaning correspondences across languages that are as evocative as they are hard to explain - 's' in 'dog', 'z' in 'star', 't' in 'stone', 'l' in 'leaf'.

A further implication of the paper that the authors themselves will perhaps not endorse (or other colleagues of mine who study sound-symbolism such as Dingemanse et al. in this review) is that humans may be good at perceiving links such as between 'k' and jagged shapes because of natural selection for the ability to perceive cross-modal mappings, specifically in the context of acquiring language.  I am not arguing that specific associations such as 'nose' and 'n' are innate, but a general ability to perceive associations across modalities is likely to be innate and have been selected for in the context of acquiring language.  People vary in their ability to guess the meanings of ideophones or words in another language, and there is evidence that this ability is linked with synaesthesia, the condition of having associations across senses such as sounds with colours.  Synaesthesia often runs in families (e.g. this study), giving one example of the way that the ability to make cross-modal mappings with sounds could be subject to genetic variation.  

The fact that competent speakers are good at tasks such as the bouba/kiki task or guessing the meanings of foreign words and ideophones suggests that the genetic variants underpinning these abilities must have become common, perhaps under the influence of selection.  If there was any selection pressure on these abilities in the past, it may have been less on the ability to remember vocabulary (although Imai and Kita (2014) argue that sound-symbolism does help infants learn words) so much as on understanding the concept of spoken communication at all.  Hominids have clearly had some form of communication from 2.5 million years ago which likely used at least manual gesture, as evidenced by tool traditions which require a certain amount of active teaching, leading us to have an enriched ability to understand of the communicative intention of gestures compared with other apes.

The transition to using speech may have similarly created a selection pressure for an instinctive understanding of how sounds can convey meaning.  If so, sound-meaning associations are evidence of shared psychological biases that originally allowed the evolution of spoken language.

External image sources: mouthgesturebouba/kiki, Magritte

Monday, September 5, 2016

Diachronic and functional explanations of typological universals @ SLE2016

The last two days I attended the workshop "Diachronic and functional explanations of typological universals" at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea in Napels, Italy. This theme session was organized by Natalia Levshina, Ilja Serzant, Susanne Michaelis and Karsten Schmidtke-Bode, the description can be found here (page 409-410) and the introduction can be found here.

The purpose of the workshop was to draw attention to the importance of diachronic explanations for typological universals. Typological universals were also the topic of Jeremy's last post. They are properties found in (nearly) all languages, or if not all, enough languages to deserve an explanation. Jeremy discusses word order universals, an example being that if a language has verb-object word order, it is also likely to have prepositions, i.e. to have adposition-noun order (see Matthew Dryer's map in the World Atlas of Language Structures Online). Many explanations proposed for universals have been 'functional': verb-object and adposition-noun, for instance, would pattern together because they branch in the same direction, and this is easier to process than structures which do not match in this regard (Dryer 1992). There are many more examples of studies who explain typological correlations in terms of ease of processing, comprehension, production, and (first language and second language) learnability.

As the conveners of the workshop note, an alternative view on explaining universals comes from the history (diachrony) of languages. This is also the point of Jeremy's post: showing that at least some word order universals can be explained through highly common grammaticalization pathways rather than the pull of processing or learnability constraints.

It is really unfortunate that for some time now, linguistic typology and historical linguistics are conceived of as quite different and separate enterprises. Shibatani and Bynon (1995: 20-21) describe that this disunion came about when transitions between the famous morphological "stages" of isolation, agglutination, and fusion proved unfalsifiable in the sixties. Later on, Givón and Greenberg would pave the road towards an integration of typology and historical linguistic. This integration has not fully been achieved, however. Handbooks on linguistic typology often include a chapter on language change, but they don't give language change the central role it should have in order to advance the field.

During the Napels workshop, it became clear that all participants (mostly typologists looking at various morpho-syntactic features) feel the need for further development of historical explanations of typological patterns and universals. This includes Sonia Cristofaro, first and foremost, who has published extensively on this topic. See also her interview with Martin Haspelmath.

Other participants with a historical outlook were Eugen Hill, who described a diachronic rather than a functional explanation of Watkin's law; Eitan Grossman, who presented multiple grammaticalization pathways through which agent nominalizers (such as '-er' in 'kill-er') come about; and Michael Cysouw, who proposed an extension of Maslova (2002) in order to study transition probabilities between states, rather than frequencies of states.

Other participants emphasised the role of functional explanations. First and foremost, this includes Susanne Michaelis and Martin Haspelmath, the latter of which argues for a functional-adaptive constraint that guides diachronic change in general, and during this workshop together they proposed this constraint to explain the difference in length between independent personal pronouns (mine as in 'the book is mine') and dependent personal pronouns (my as in 'my book'). (See also Martin Haspelmath's post on this topic on his blog Diversity linguistics comment).

Other participants with a functional outlook were Ilja Seržant, who defended a functional account of the rise of differential object marking in Old Russian; Anita Slonimska and Seán Roberts (who won first prize for best PhD presentation!), who showed that question words are similar in order to facilitate early speech-act recognition; and Paul Widmer et al., who present a phylogenetic comparative study of the stability of recursion of the Indo-European noun phrase, a result that can only be explained through a neurophysiological preference for recursion.

Then there was a set of participants who proposed links between history and functional explanations: Olga Fischer, who discusses the role of analogy in grammaticalization; Borja Herce Calleja, who shows that past and future time deictic adverbials (like 'ago' (past) and 'in X years time' (future)) have different diachronic sources, which could be explained by the cognitive and experiential gap between past and future; and my own talk with Andreea Calude, which considered diachronic and functional explanations of atom-base order of numerals in Indo-European.

The most interesting work, at least in my opinion, was presented by Balthasar Bickel and Damián Blasi, Natalia Levshina, and Karsten Schmidtke-Bode. These three presentations all attempted to explain typological patterns through synthesis not only of typological and diachronic data, but data from experiments, corpus studies, gesture studies, and information structure. Balthasar Bickel and Damián Blasi presented an account of the preference for unmarked initial noun phrases to be either S ("subject") or A ("agent") arguments using findings from the neurophysiology of language processing, phylogenetics, and gesture studies. Natalia Levshina explained typological distributions of lexical, morphological, and analytic causatives through economy principles, using evidence from a corpus study, a typological study, a language learning experiment, consideration of diachronic pathways, and frequency effects. Karsten Schmidtke-Bode presented findings on diachronic pathways, iconicity, information structure and corpora to explain the placement of S ("subject") and A ("agent") complements.

These three talks where the most impressive to me, as the best bet we have in explaining typological patterns is to incorporate as many different types of data we can get. This was summed up rather nicely in Balthasar Bickel and Damián Blasi's conclusion. In my wording, they state that in order to explain diachronic universals, we need:
 - a theory of common evolutionary pathways (grammaticalization)
 - a theory of aspects that constrain random evolution: i.e. 'functional' needs from communication, processing, production, learnability, etc.

Hence, the two themes of the workshop are really two sides of the same coin. This is not a new conclusion, see for instance Jadranka Gvozdanović who writes in 1997 "a theory of language history is explanatorily adequate to the extend that it is able to correlate attested language data with types of language activity whose consequences they are" (Gvozdanović 1997). However, we may now have tools (demonstrated by various participants of the workshop) as well as ever increasing data sets that can be used to provide a holistic account of language universals. The role of grammaticalization in this endeavor is central, as Jeremy noted earlier, and very interesting in light of Shibatani and Bynon's description of the state of the art in 1995: "But we do not now see grammaticalization as a mechanism which propels entire languages from one type to another" (Shibatani and Bynon 1995: 21). This has obviously changed, and so much the better for our understanding of typological and historical patterns.


Dryer, Matthew S. 1992. The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language, 68(1). 81-138.

Gvozdanović, Jadranka. 1997. Introduction. In Gvozdanović, J. (ed.), Language change and functional explanations  1-8. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Maslova, Elena. 2002. Distributional universals and the rate of type shifts: towards a dynamic approach to "probability sampling". Lecture given at the 3rd Winter Typological School, Moscow. Available online at

Shibatani, Masayoshi, & Bynon, Theodora. 1995. Approaches to language typology: A conspectus. In Shibatani, M. & Bynon, T. (Eds.), Approaches to language typology  1-26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.