My research attempts to bring together the remarkable variation we find across languages with the sense that they are deeply similar. I have three broad areas of interest:
- For some years I have been developing the Canonical Typology framework, which has expanded beyond its original heartland of morphology and syntax to include work in phonology and sign language (see the Canonical Typology bibliography).
- Within the AHRC funded project From competing theories to fieldwork: The challenge of an extreme agreement system I am considering what this extreme agreement system tells us about the general typology of agreement systems.
- The AHRC funded Combining Gender and Classifiers in Natural Language tackles the disparate range of phenomena labelled ‘classifiers’ as well as the somewhat more homogeneous gender systems. Working with Sebastian Fedden, we are developing a canonical approach to these challenging data.
- Number, gender, person and case all offer interesting challenges. Recently I have returned to gender, editing a volume The expression of gender.
- With Matthew Baerman, we show that asymmetries in gender marking can have the effect of expressing subject person even in the absence of dedicated person. We see this in Archi and notably in the Tucanoan languages of South America.
Inflectional morphology (especially Network Morphology)
- I led the European Research Council funded project Morphological Complexity, which examined the ways in which morphological structure introduces complexity which has no apparent function outside this component. My resulting research on the typology of splits in paradigms is to appear in Language.
- My most recent work is on conditions on inflection, the generalizations which cross-cut the generalizations provided by inflection classes
- The ESRC & AHRC funded Endangered complexity: Inflectional classes in Oto-Manguean languages has provided paradigms of remarkable complexity, including unusual types of split paradigms.
- I am also concerned with the practical issue of how we represent inflectional material in a transparent and comprehensible way.
For more on my research, publications and presentations please see my academia.edu page: https://surrey.academia.edu/GrevilleGCorbett
I am happy to supervise PhD students in the areas listed.
Professional associations and committees
I have been elected to these societies:
Academia Europaea (Member)
Academy of Social Sciences (Fellow)
British Academy (Fellow)
International Grammar Commission of the Congress of Slavists
Linguistic Society of America (Honorary Member)
I am a member of the following academic organisations:
Association for Linguistic Typology
Australian Linguistic Society
British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies
Linguistics Association of Great Britain
Societas Linguistica Europaea
Some languages have both gender and classifiers, contrary to what was once believed possible. We use these interesting languages as a unique window onto nominal classification. They provide the impetus for a new typology, based on the degree of orthogonality of the semantic systems and the degree of difference of the forms realizing them. This nine-way typology integrates traditional gender, traditional classifiers and – importantly – the many recently attested phenomena lying between. Besides progress specifically in understanding nominal classification, our approach provides clarity on the wider theoretical issue of single versus concurrent featural systems.
Features are central to all major theories of syntax and morphology. Yet it can be a non-trivial task to determine the inventory of features and their values for a given language, and in particular to determine whether to postulate one feature or two in the same semantico-syntactic domain. We illustrate this from tenseaspect-mood (TAM) in Kayardild, and adduce principles for deciding in general between one-feature and two-feature analyses, thereby contributing to the theory of feature systems and their typology. Kayardild shows striking inflectional complexities, investigated in two major studies (Evans 1995, Round 2013), and it proves particularly revealing for our topic. Both Evans and Round claimed that clauses in Kayardild have not one but two concurrent TAM features. While it is perfectly possible for a language to have two features of the same type, it is unusual. Accordingly, we establish general arguments which would justify postulating two features rather than one; we then apply these specifically to Kayardild TAM. Our finding is at variance with both Evans and Round; on all counts, the evidence which would motivate an analysis in terms of one TAM feature or two is either approximately balanced, or clearly favours an analysis with just one. Thus even when faced with highly complex language facts, we can apply a principled approach to the question of whether we are dealing with one feature or two, and this is encouraging for the many of us seeking a rigorous science of typology. We also find that Kayardild, which in many ways is excitingly exotic, is in this one corner of its grammar quite ordinary.
We examine the varying role of conditions on grammatical relations marking (namely animacy and volitionality) by looking at different languages of one family, using both existing descriptions and working with specially prepared video stimuli. This enables us to see the degree of variation permitted within closely related languages. We look at four Alor-Pantar languages (Teiwa, Adang, Kamang, and Abui), Papuan languages of eastern Indonesia. The conditions on argument marking are manifested in different ways. Those languages with syntactic alignment index objects with a prefix, those which have semantic alignment index objects and some subjects with a prefix. In 42 video clips we systematically varied animacy and volitionality values for participants in one and two-participant events. These clips were used in fieldwork to elicit descriptions of the events. The data show that animacy of the object is an important factor which favours indexation of the object on the verb in all four languages to varying degrees. Volitionality, on the other hand, is a factor in the semantically aligned languages only. While the presence of a prefix on the verb is semantically motivated in many instances, marking is not directly determined by verbal or participant semantics, and lexical factors must also play a role.
In some Norwegian dialects, such as older Oslo dialect, the noun mamma ‘mother’ unexpectedly appears to be masculine. The Nordreisa dialect (Northern Norwegian) goes one step further. The word looks like it is masculine, but only in the definite form. This is an unusual “split” because gender mixture is normally based on number, not definiteness (but we find some few corroborative examples in other Norwegian dialects and different, but converging evidence on the Web). The Nordreisa example of mamma is unusual also because agreement targets are affected differently. The preference is for masculine agreement within the noun phrase, but for feminine agreement outside it. This is, therefore, an intriguing example since it combines a split based on definiteness with different gender requirements according to different agreement targets. On careful analysis, and given strict adherence to the classical, agreement-based definition of gender, the unusual behavior of mamma turns out to conform to the Agreement Hierarchy
Often features are presented as clean, neat, simple. Indeed it is the contrast with the idiosyncrasies of lexical items which gives the intuitive justification for features. But reality is more complex. There are many instances where it is arguable whether we should postulate a feature (value), as with person in Archi. We must recognize that feature systems vary: (a) according to how well founded they are, and (b) in how they distribute across the lexicon. To analyse this difficult area, the penumbra of feature systems, I start from an idealized view, and then plot the deviations from that ideal. In other words, I take a ‘canonical’ approach. Having justified this approach in general terms, I propose a specific set of converging criteria for canonical features and values, concentrating on the genuine morphosyntactic features. In brief, the overarching principles are that a canonical morphosyntactic feature is constrained by simple rules of syntax (including the claim that syntax is ‘morphology-free’) and has robust formal marking. These give us a point in the theoretical space from which to calibrate the difficult instances which abound in feature systems. In accounts of particular features, various types of what we may call non-canonical behaviour have been pointed out: e.g., non-autonomous case values (Zaliznjak 1973), minor numbers, inquorate genders. We should ask whether these problems are feature-specific or whether they recur in the different morphosyntactic features. It turns out that, at the right level of abstraction, we find similar instances of non-canonicity with the different features. Let us concentrate on the criteria contributing to ‘robust formal marking’: Criterion 1: Canonical features and their values have dedicated forms. We find non-autonomous case values (violating criterion 1), in Classical Armenian, for instance (Baerman 2002); similarly we find non-autonomous gender values (as in Romanian). Criterion 2: Canonical features and their values are uniquely distinguishable across other logically compatible features and their values. Deviations give sub-genders (Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian), sub-cases (Russian) and sub-numbers (Biak). Criterion 3: Canonical features and their values are distinguished consistently across relevant parts of speech (word classes). In the easy examples, one part of speech has values which represent a collapsing of values available on another. More interesting are systems where combinations give ad
We present a corpus-based study of variation in case assignment of the direct object of negated verbs in Russian over the past 200 years. Superficially the system of case forms available over this relatively short period has remained largely the same, but the way in which certain cases are used has been radically altered. This is particularly apparent in the treatment of the direct object of negated verbs. We argue that various semantic factors have been involved in bringing about this change, and that the role and significance of these factors has been changing over the period under investigation. This has implications for our understanding of the role of semantics in case assignment.
The approach of Canonical Typology has proved fruitful for investigating a range of problems in syntax, inflectional morphology and most recently in phonology. It is therefore logical to take a canonical approach to derivational morphology. It provides a new perspective on some old issues, showing how previous key ideas fit together. The criteria proposed prove to have some degree of external justification. And from the point of view of canonical typology the results are particularly promising, since the criteria are interestingly different from those proposed in other domains.
Berlin & Kay's basic colour term framework claims that there is an ordering in the diachronic development of languages' colour systems. One generalisation is that primary colours, WHITE, BLACK, RED, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE, are lexicalised before derived colours, which are perceptual blends, e.g. ORANGE is the blend of YELLOW and RED. The colour systems of Lower Sorbian and Upper Sorbian offer an important typological contribution. It is already known that primary colour space can contract upon the emergence of a basic derived term; our findings indicate that derived categories also shift as colour systems develop. Tsakhur offers corroborating evidence.
We specify a typology for the extreme of inflectional morphology, namely suppletion (as in go ~ went). This is an unusual enterprise within typology, and it requires a ‘canonical’ approach. That is, we define the canonical or best instance, through a set of converging criteria, and use this point in theoretical space to locate the various occurring types. Thus the criteria establish the dimensions along which we find the specific instances of suppletion, allowing us to calibrate examples out from the canonical. The criteria fall into two main areas, those internal to the lexeme and those external to it. Moreover, we find interactions with other morphological phenomena, and discuss four of them: syncretism, periphrasis, overdifferentiation and reduplication. These remarkable instances of suppletion, particularly when in interaction with other phenomena, extend the boundary of the notion ‘possible word’. Besides laying out the possibilities for the specific phenomenon of suppletion, we show how a canonical approach allows us to make progress in typology, even in the most challenging areas.
In descriptions of languages, we make use of morphosyntactic features such as gender, number or person. This paper shows that sometimes choosing the features and values to describe a language is not straightforward, and the decision of whether or not to use a particular feature requires careful consideration. Thus, when determining a language’s feature inventory, we should consider both why we posit a given feature, and how many values to posit for the feature. In our case study we look closely at the Daghestanian language Archi. It is usually assumed that languages have a person feature, but with Archi this is not self-evident. Archi (like some related languages) has no unique forms for agreement in person, and the standard descriptions of this language do not involve the feature person. However, the agreement patterns in Archi may be interpreted in favour of the presence of this feature, despite the absence of any phonologically distinct forms realising it. Thus, we claim that Archi does have the feature of person that had not been recognised for this language before. We also give a brief overview of the category of person in the languages of Daghestan.
Morphological features characterize variations in morphological form which are independent of syntactic context. They contrast with morphosyntactic features, which characterize variations in form correlated with different syntactic contexts. Morphological features account for formal variation across lexemes (inflectional class), as well as morphosyntactically incoherent alternations within the paradigm of a single lexeme. Such morphological features are not available to the syntax, as is made explicit in the principle of 'morphology-free syntax'. Building on work on stress patterns in Network Morphology and on stems in Paradigm Function Morphology, we take initial steps towards a typology of these morphological features. We identify four types: inflectional class features (affixal and prosodic), stem indexing features, syncretic index features and morphophonological features. Then we offer a first list of criteria for distinguishing them from morphosyntactic features (independently of the principle of morphology-free syntax). Finally we review the arguments demonstrating the need to recognize morphological features. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007.
Agreement is approached from the analytical decisions required for constructing a typological database. The Surrey Database of Agreement provides detailed, highly structured information on the agreement systems of fifteen genetically diverse languages. The range of material included and the criteria for inclusion are set out here. There is then detailed discussion of the difficult cases, in particular the dividing line between agreement markers and pronominal affixes. The criteria relevant to this distinction are in part drawn from the literature and in part new. The aim is that the criteria adopted should be fully clear, so that linguists of different persuasions can use the database for their varying purposes.
The author uses a 'canonical' approach to offer a new perspective on the complex phenomenon of inflectional classes. This means extrapolating from what there is to what there might be, in order to define the theoretical space into which real instances fit. To do this, the author proposes eight criteria, grouped under two overarching principles. These are: I. distinctiveness: canonical inflectional classes are as clearly distinct as possible; and II. independence: the distribution of lexical items over canonical inflectional classes is unmotivated. The author investigates the various deviations from these principles, by considering in turn the more detailed criteria which exemplify them. While one might reasonably expect that 'canonical inflectional class' is an ideal without exemplars, the author finds an example which comes remarkably close to canonical.
Lexemes may have an internally consistent paradigm, or the paradigm may be split into segments. Splits may be ‘motivated’, that is they may correspond to morphosemantic, morphosyntactic2 or phonological specifications. Alternatively the split may lack such motivation, in which case we have a morphomic split, one which arguably increases the complexity of the system with no obvious corresponding return. We shall focus on the difference between these two types, so that we can recognise morphomic splits. There are some properties which the two types of split share: for instance, both motivated and morphomic splits can be viewed in terms of Wurzel’s Paradigm Structure Conditions (1989: 118), that is, there can be predictive relations within the segments; and both types can persist over long periods of time.3 But they are also interestingly different, which makes drawing the distinction valuable. It bears on the important notion that syntax is morphology-free. Our main question, then, is ‘how do morphomic splits differ from motivated splits?’
Hybrid nouns, nouns which induce different agreements according to the target, have been described in various languages. The new question is why they exist at all. There is clear evidence that hybrids vary considerably in the agreement they control, even within a single language. It therefore seems logical to align this variability with lexical semantics, and this is convincing for some hybrids. But this motivation is hard to reconcile with the fact that some hybrids are hybrids only for part of their paradigm. These latter instances suggest that the underlying motivation for some hybrids is a form-meaning mismatch.
Person is required in an account of the syntax and the morphology of many languages, while others lack it. Between these two types are languages where person lacks unique morphological exponents (suggesting it is not a morphosyntactic feature) but interacts systematically with the expression of other features (suggesting it is a feature). In particular in a range of languages, notably in the Nakh-Daghestanian and Tucanoan families, the expression of gender and person are intertwined. The recurring pattern is that a default form in the gender system (inanimate or neuter) also serves for first and second person. After careful examination, possible analyses without a person feature become less attractive. While these genuinely difficult systems may still lead us to posit a morphosyntactic person feature, we must recognize that its status is intriguingly different from that which is normally found.
When examining Periphrasis we naturally analyse the state of the contributing elements and the interplay of syntactic and morphological factors. But if periphrastic forms are part of paradigms, we should also ask how periphrasis affects the notion ‘possible lexeme’. In particular, we can look at the ways in which periphrastic forms ‘split’ lexemes. This is a relatively new area. Since periphrasis is in large part the issue of whether we are dealing with a single lexeme or more than one, it is therefore worth investigating these splits more generally, first looking at ‘easier’ splits, and only then going on to the typology of splits created by periphrasis. I shall not go over the issue of the competition between synthetic and periphrastic forms, for which see, for instance, Stump (2002) and Kiparsky (2005); rather I shall concentrate on the shape of lexemes which are split by periphrasis.
It has been suggested that grammatical relations should be sufficient to determine agreement relations within the clausal domain. Three types of counter-example to this proposal are presented. Then evidence is presented which suggests that the rules for agreement require access to thematic roles and to communicative functions. In addition, they need to refer to surface case. While grammatical relations provide a useful part of a typology of agreement, they are far from sufficient.
We need to bring together research into the diverse content of features in the world's languages with the discussion of their formal properties, and look for insights across sub‐discipline boundaries. This chapter offers summaries of all contributions and highlights areas of common ground between the different approaches. The selected perspectives represent major areas of linguistics where features are used.
In this chapter we consider databases which have been constructed to investigate particular linguistic phenomena. Data entered into a database with little thought or attention to its categorisation are at best usless, and in the worst case harmful if used to make spurious generalizations. So there is a requirement that we are explicit about our analyses and the phenomena under investigation, and that serious thought is given to the structure of the database.
In many respects the agreement systems of Slavonic languages are close to canonical. Controllers of agreement are often present, they have overt expression of features, and they take consistent agreements. The target has obligatory bound expression of agreement, and there is matching of features values (for person, number and gender). However, Slavonic also shows several very interesting instances of agreement choices, induced by a range of different controller types. These agreement choices provide good evidence for the constraints of the Agreement Hierarchy and the Predicate Hierarchy, as well as for various types of condition on agreement, notably animacy and precedence.
Greenberg’s paper on universals (1963) contains an interesting set of generalizations relating to features. It is a good time to review the issues involved in establishing universals of features. These verge on the philosophical at one extreme, while at the other they concern the practical question of how we present and gloss examples. Various initiatives concerned with standardization, taken broadly, are under way, and it is important that they should be fully informed by the linguistic issues. There are two main areas to discuss: the Analysis problem and the Correspondence problem. The Analysis problem: for a given language, we need to be able to justify the postulation of any feature (such as number or case). Equally, for each feature in the language we need to be able to justify the set of values postulated (for example: singular, dual, paucal and plural; nominative, accusative and genitive). For some languages the analysis is trivially simple, in others it is exceptionally complex (for some there have been long-running debates). In this context, it is worth reviewing the work of the Set-theoretical School, given its undoubted relevance for typology. The difficulties posed by hybrids will be discussed; this leads naturally to typological hierarchies and the ‘Canonical’ approach in modern typology. The Correspondence problem: as typologists we need to be able to justify treating features and their values as comparable across languages. This is not straightforward, and yet a good deal of typology, including enterprises such as the World Atlas of Language Structures, depends upon it. The problem has a second, more subtle version. Even within a single language, features and their values do not necessarily line up consistently. In Bayso, the number system of nouns and verbs interact in a complex way. In Romanian, the genders of nouns and adjectives differ, and there are many more such examples. Here a typological perspective can inform the analysis of a single language and, of course, a typology which ignored these languages would be considerably impoverished. Features are an area where the concerns of the typologist meet those of computational linguists, formal linguists, fieldworkers, in fact linguists in many different guises. As we put increasing theoretical weight on features, it is important to review our assumptions and check our progress in understanding them.
As Einstein nicely put it: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ It would be good to have a simple typology of the morphosyntactic features. And if Zwicky (1986: 988-989) is right in suggesting that there is a fixed list of available features and values, then a simple typology is an attainable goal. However, when we examine how features and their values can be established for given languages, gradience appears to be a major challenge. One common response to this challenge is to propose additional feature values; as we shall see, this response would rule out a simple typology. I argue that this approach fails: additional values cannot account for gradience. This means that we can still work towards the ideal of a simple typology. Thus for this paper, gradience looms large as a possible obstacle to a different goal. Gradience is an obstacle, which might suggest that we were heading for the ‘simpler’ situation, the one that fails to recognize the true complexity of the problem. I will show that this apparent obstacle is not directly relevant, allowing us still to work towards a typology which is indeed ‘as simple as possible’
Cross-linguistic database and typological database
On-line proceedings of the 4th Mediterranean Morphology Meeting (MMM4), Catania, Sicilia 21-23 Sep 2003
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