Sonia Cristofaro will be presenting at next research seminar

Posted on May 10, 2017 by


Next Tuesday, May 16,  we welcome Sonia Cristofaro at the LEL Research Seminar. Professor Cristofaro, who is based at the University of Pavia (Italy), will come to Manchester to talk about Typological universals in diachronic perspective.

The event details are as follows:

Location: Samuel Alexander Building, room A112

Date and time: Tuesday, May 9, 4.15pm-5.30pm

We look forward to welcoming Sonia Cristofaro, and hope to see all of you there to drink a glass of wine to celebrate to end of this semester’s seminars.

Here is the abstract:


Typological universals in diachronic perspective

Sonia Cristofaro – University of Pavia

While it is often assumed that the results of typological research can be used to test the validity of proposed historical reconstructions (Shields 2011, among others), the reverse does not usually hold. Despite the fundamentally diachronic orientation of Greenberg’s work, typological generalizations, such as typological universals and explanations thereof, usually refer to synchronic cross-linguistic patterns, not the actual diachronic processes that give rise to these patterns in individual languages. Over the past decades, a number of typologists have raised the point that explanations of individ- ual patterns should be based on these processes, rather than the patterns in themselves (Bybee 1988, 2006, and 2008, Aristar 1991). While more and more relevant data has been collected within gram- maticalization studies and studies of language change in general, however, this data is not usually integrated into typological generalizations. Conversely, historical linguists do not usually address the implications of their findings for these generalizations.

This paper examines different types of cross-linguistic data on the diachronic development of various patterns described by some major typological universals pertaining to the encoding of number distinctions, alignment systems (for example, split ergativity and hierarchical alignment), alienable and inalienable possession, and word order. This data challenges existing generalizations about the relevant patterns in two ways:

  • Individualpatternsareoftenexplainedintermsofgeneralprinciplesthatassumedlyleadspeak- ers to create these patterns over time, for example economy or processing ease. Yet, these prin- ciples are postulated based on the synchronic properties of the relevant patterns, and they do not appear to play any obvious role in the actual diachronic processes that give rise to these pat- terns. These processes are rather motivated in terms of the properties of highly specific source constructions.
  • Inmanycases,individualpatternsareassumedtoreflectasingleoverarchingprinciple,butthey are actually a combined result of several particularized diachronic processes, which may have contrasting properties and may not be obviously amenable to a unified explanation.These facts call for a shift in perspective in typological research. Most typological generalizations are goal-oriented, in the sense that the development of particular cross-linguistic patterns is assumed to be motivated in terms of their synchronic properties. A thorough understanding of these patterns, however, requires a source oriented approach where qualitative and quantitative data are taken into account about what constructions actually give rise to what patterns, in what contexts, and through what mechanisms. This approach has a parallel, for example, in Evolutionary Phonology (e.g. Blevins 2004, 2008).


    Aristar, A. R. (1991). On diachronic sources and synchronic patterns: an investigation into the origin of linguistic universals. Language 67, 1–33.

    Blevins, J. (2004). Evolutionary phonology: the emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press.

    Blevins, J. (2008). Consonant Epenthesis: Natural and Unnatural Histories. In J. Good (Ed.), Lin- guistic Universals and Language Change, pp. 79–107. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Bybee, J. (1988). The diachronic dimension in explanation. In J. A. Hawkins (Ed.), Explaining language universals, pp. 350–79. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Bybee, J. (2006). Language change and universals. In R. Mairal and J. Gil (Eds.), Linguistic Uni- versals, pp. 179–94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Bybee, J. (2008). Formal Universals as Emergent Phenomena: The Origins of Structure Preser- vation. In J. Good (Ed.), Linguistic Universals and Language Change, pp. 108–21. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Shields, Kenneth, J. (2011). Linguistic Typology and Historical Linguistics. In J. J. Song (Ed.), Handbook of Linguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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