Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Greville G. Corbett - with Sebastian Fedden, Mike Franjieh, Alexandra Grandison & Erich Round (Surrey Morphology Group, University of Surrey)

Title: Categorisation: what languages – and linguists – do with it

Abstract: Fascinating new systems of nominal classification keep being found, but the tools for analysis have not kept pace. We therefore propose a typology of nominal classification, encompassing gender and classifier systems of categorisation. Earlier it made sense to oppose gender and classifiers (Dixon 1982), but the opposition cannot be maintained. Miraña has characteristics of gender and of classifiers (Seifart 2005); Reid’s (1997) account of Ngan'gityemerri provides further evidence against a sharp divide, since classifiers can grammaticalize into gender, through intermediate types. Relinquishing the opposition of gender vs classifiers allows a clearer picture of the possibilities. We pull apart traditional gender characteristics, and traditional classifier characteristics, and see that these characteristics combine in many ways. This motivates a canonical perspective: we define the notion of canonical gender, and use this idealization as a baseline from which to calibrate the theoretical space of nominal classification. This allows us to situate the interesting combinations we find.

Against this typological background, we may approach the origin and nature of gender. Here the possessive classifier systems of Oceanic languages can provide a unique insight. Typically, a noun can occur with different classifiers, depending on how the possessed item is used by the possessor. But we also find, in marked contrast, languages like North Ambrym (Vanuatu), where particular nouns typically occur with a given classifier (Franjieh 2016). We argue that North Ambrym’s innovative system resembles a gender system: a noun must occur with a particular classifier regardless of contextual interactions. We seek to establish empirically whether gender systems can indeed emerge from possessive classifiers in this way. We must also uncover how and why languages would relinquish a useful, meaningful classificatory system, and adopt a rigid, apparently unmotivated gender system.

We have designed and will run seven novel experiments to compare possessive classifier systems in six Oceanic languages of Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Each of these six languages has a different inventory size of classifiers — from a simple two-way distinction to a more complex inventory of twenty-three. This combination of typology with psycholinguistics promises to shed new light on the development and functioning of systems of nominal classification. We are keen to have feedback before a round of psycholinguistic experiments in the field this summer. The Oceanic data obtained so far suggest that, in this instance, we find an interesting parallelism: diachronic change is running in the direction of canonicity.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

May 14 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-05-14: Categorisation: what languages – and linguists – do with it

Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD