PS Usage-based vs. diachronic explanations in language typology



Zeit/Ort n.V.:

  • Mi 16:15-17:45
  • Mi 16:15-17:45, Raum C 601

Voraussetzungen / Organisatorisches

Das PS Linguistics gehört in folgenden Studiengängen jeweils zu folgenden Modulen:

  • BA English and American Studies: Zwischenmodul II Linguistics. (Zulassungsvoraussetzung: Zwischenmodul I: Thematisches Kombinationsmodul)

  • Lehramt Englisch an Gymnasien: Zwischenmodul L-GYM Linguistics. (Zulassungsvoraussetzung: Basismodul Linguistics)

  • Lehramt Englisch an Grund-, Haupt- und Realschulen: Seminarmodul L-UF Linguistics. (Zulassungsvoraussetzung: Elementarmodul Linguistics)

Scheinerwerb: Referat + Hausarbeit


Language use is often also assumed to explain generalizations on a higher level, namely for grammatical properties and systematic correlations of grammatical properties that we find in many languages of the world. One famous example is word order: if we think of a sentence that consists of a subject (S), an object (O), and a verb (V), the following word orders are logically possible:

  • SOV

  • SVO

  • VSO

  • VOS

  • OSV

  • OVS

Looking at the actual occurrence of those word orders across languages however shows that some of the orders are much more frequent (likely to occur) than others. Why is that? One possible explanation making reference to language use suggests that the crosslinguistically more frequent word orders are those that make the processing of the sentence relatively easy (efficient). On the other hand, the word orders that we find only rarely are related to higher cognitive demands and are thus less likely to be used in many languages. While this reasoning is plausible and seems to account for the frequent structures, it does not explain the existence of structures that come with a cognitive disadvantage in some languages.
A competing line of explanations does not refer to current language use but rather to its historical development. For instance, another crosslinguistic trend that can be observed is that adnominal possessors and relative clauses often occur on the same side of the noun in a given language: if the language has a postnominal possessor (genitive) like "the star of the evening", then the language is likely to have a postnominal relative clause as well, e.g. "the coffee that I enjoyed this morning". Such correlations have also often been related to processing ease: it is more efficient and easier to have a consistent order in the noun phrase within a single language, so the argument goes. What can be shown in many cases, however, is that the current correlations are in fact the result of their diachronic development, which would exclude a functionally driven explanation. In this vein, it can be shown that nominal modifiers such as relative clauses and genitives historically develop from the same source construction in many languages. The observation that they show the same order in a later point in time cannot be correlated, then, because the two constructions were never identependent of each other to begin with.
In order to compare and discuss these two lines of explanations for crosslinguistic tendencies in grammar, we are going to introduce and discuss the following topics in this seminar:
  • crosslinguisic universals and language typology

  • speaker-oriented, usage-based explanations of those universals

  • diachronic explanations (focusing on the development of the relevant grammatical properties)