I am a morphologist and phonologist, and modeller of language change and language diversity. I am particularly interested in improving the measurement of linguistic diversity, and developing powerful quantitative tools for its analysis. In my research, I see language diversity and language change as two sides of the same coin, and I work with both.
Currently I am a British Academy Global Professor (2021-24) with the Surrey Morphology Group. Previously I held positions at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (2019-20); as a British Academy Rutherford Fellow at Surrey (2018); as an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow (2015-18); a University of Queensland Arts Faculty Research Fellow (2014); a National Science Foundation Research Associate at Yale (2009-11), and I hold a position as a linguist at the University of Queensland, Australia where I have taught and supervised in the fields of phonology, morphology, Australian languages, language typology and evolutionary linguistics since 2011.
Postgraduate research supervision
Options for securing PhD funding for outstanding candidates can always be explored. Please send me an email if you are interested in any of the areas I am researching.
Previous PhD Students
Jayden Macklin-Cordes Phonotactics in historical linguistics: Quantitative interrogation of a novel data source.
Nahyun Kwon The natural motivation of sound symbolism.
Ruihua Yin The Sonority Sequencing Principle: A Large-scale Cross-linguistic Investigation of Phonotactics
Jayden Macklin-Cordes, Claire Bowern, and Erich Round. 2021. Phylogenetic Signal in Phonotactics. Diachronica. View full publication
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.
Linguistics, and typology in particular, can have a bright future. We justify this optimism by discussing comparability from two angles. First, we take the opportunity presented by this special issue of Linguistic Typology to pause for a moment and make explicit some of the logical underpinnings of typological sciences, linguistics included, which we believe are worth reminding ourselves of. Second, we give a brief illustration of comparison, and particularly measurement, within modern typology.
The contact history of the languages of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait has been claimed (e.g. by Dixon 2002, Wurm 1972, and others) to have been sufficiently intense as to obscure the genetic relationship of the Western Torres Strait language. Some have argued that it is an Australian (Pama-Nyungan) language, though with considerable influence from the Papuan language Meryam Mir (the Eastern Torres Strait language). Others have claimed that the Western Torres language is, in fact, a genetically Papuan language, though with substantial Australian substrate or adstrate influence. Much has been made of phonological structures which have been viewed as unusual for Australian languages. In this paper we examine the evidence for contact claims in the region. We review aspects of the phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait languages with an eye to identifying areal influence. This larger data pool shows that the case for intense contact has been vastly overstated. Beyond some phonological features and some loan words, there is no linguistic evidence for intense contact; moreover, the phonological features adduced to be evidence of contact are also found to be not specifically Papuan, but part of a wider set of features in Australian languages.
Dynamic models of paradigm change can elucidate how the simplest of processes may lead to unexpected outcomes, and thereby can reveal new potential explanations for observed linguistic phenomena. Ackerman & Malouf (2015) present a model in which inflectional systems reduce in disorder through the action of an attraction-only dynamic, in which lexemes only ever grow more similar to one another over time. Here we emphasise that: (1) Attraction-only models cannot evolve the structured diversity which characterises true inflectional systems, because they inevitably remove all variation; and (2) Models with both attraction and repulsion enable the emergence of systems that are strikingly reminiscent of morphomic structure such as inflection classes. Thus, just one small ingredient -- change based on dissimilarity -- separates models that tend inexorably to uniformity, and which therefore are implausible for inflectional morphology, from those which evolve stable, morphome-like structure. These models have the potential to alter how we attempt to account for morphological complexity.
The Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP) is a fundamental governing principle of syllable structure; however, its details remain contested. This study aims to clarify the empirical status of the SSP in a cross-linguistic study of 496 languages. We adopt a phonetically-grounded definition of sonority - acoustic intensity - and examine how many languages contain SSP-violating clusters word-initially and word-finally. We consider the treatment of complex segments both as sonority units and as clusters. We find a significant proportion of languages violate the SSP: almost one half of the language sample. We examine which clusters cause the violations, and find a wide range: not only the notorious case of clusters with sibilants, but also with nasals, approximants and other obstruents. Violations in onsets and codas are not symmetrical, especially when complex segments are treated as units. We discuss where existing theoretical accounts of the SSP require further development to account for our crosslinguistic results.
Abstract Phylogenetic methods have broad potential in linguistics beyond tree inference. Here, we show how a phylogenetic approach opens the possibility of gaining historical insights from entirely new kinds of linguistic data – in this instance, statistical phonotactics. We extract phonotactic data from 112 Pama-Nyungan vocabularies and apply tests for phylogenetic signal, quantifying the degree to which the data reflect phylogenetic history. We test three datasets: (1) binary variables recording the presence or absence of biphones (two-segment sequences) in a lexicon (2) frequencies of transitions between segments, and (3) frequencies of transitions between natural sound classes. Australian languages have been characterized as having a high degree of phonotactic homogeneity. Nevertheless, we detect phylogenetic signal in all datasets. Phylogenetic signal is greater in finer-grained frequency data than in binary data, and greatest in natural-class-based data. These results demonstrate the viability of employing a new source of readily extractable data in historical and comparative linguistics.
Linguistics, and typology in particular, can have a bright future. We justify this optimism by discussing comparability from two angles. First, we take the opportunity presented by this special issue of to pause for a moment and make explicit some of the logical underpinnings of typological sciences, linguistics included, which we believe are worth reminding ourselves of. Second, we give a brief illustration of comparison, and particularly measurement, within modern typology.
Causal processes can give rise to distinctive distributions in the linguistic variables that they affect. Consequently, a secure understanding of a variable's distribution can hold a key to understanding the forces that have causally shaped it. A storied distribution in linguistics has been Zipf's law, a kind of power law. In the wake of a major debate in the sciences around power-law hypotheses and the unreliability of earlier methods of evaluating them, here we re-evaluate the distributions claimed to characterize phoneme frequencies. We infer the fit of power laws and three alternative distributions to 166 Australian languages, using a maximum likelihood framework. We find evidence supporting earlier results, but also nuancing them and increasing our understanding of them. Most notably, phonemic inventories appear to have a Zipfian-like frequency structure among their most-frequent members (though perhaps also a lognormal structure) but a geometric (or exponential) structure among the least-frequent. We compare these new insights the kinds of causal processes that affect the evolution of phonemic inventories over time, and identify a potential account for why, despite there being an important role for phonetic substance in phonemic change, we could still expect inventories with highly diverse phonetic content to share similar distributions of phoneme frequencies. We conclude with priorities for future work in this promising program of research.
Functional load (FL) quantifies the contributions by phonological contrasts to distinctions made across the lexicon. Previous research has linked particularly low values of FL to sound change. Here, we broaden the scope of enquiry into FL to its evolution at higher values also. We apply phylogenetic methods to examine the diachronic evolution of FL across 90 languages of the Pama-Nyungan (PN) family of Australia. We find a high degree of phylogenetic signal in FL, indicating that FL values covary closely with genealogical structure across the family. Though phylogenetic signals have been reported for phonological structures, such as phonotactics, their detection in measures of phonological function is novel. We also find a significant, negative correlation between the FL of vowel length and of the following consonant-that is, a time-depth historical trade-off dynamic, which we relate to known allophony in modern PN languages and compensatory sound changes in their past. The findings reveal a historical dynamic, similar to transphonologization, which we characterize as a flow of contrastiveness between subsystems of the phonology. Recurring across a language family that spans a whole continent and many millennia of time depth, our findings provide one of the most compelling examples yet of Sapir's 'drift' hypothesis of non-accidental parallel development in historically related languages.
Almost universally, diachronic sound patterns of languages reveal evidence of both regular and irregular sound changes, yet an exception may be the languages of Australia. Here we discuss a long-observed and striking characteristic of diachronic sound patterns in Australian languages, namely the scarcity of evidence they present for regular sound change. Since the regularity assumption is fundamental to the comparative method, Australian languages pose an interesting challenge for linguistic theory. We examine the situation from two different angles. We identify potential explanations for the lack of evidence of regular sound change, reasoning from the nature of synchronic Australian phonologies; and we emphasise how this unusual characteristic of Australian languages may demand new methods of evaluating evidence for diachronic relatedness and new thinking about the nature of intergenerational transmission. We refer the reader also to Bowern (this volume) for additional viewpoints from which the Australian conundrum can be approached.
Cultural attractors enable evolving cultural traits to gain the stability that underpins cumulative cultural evolution, yet the conditions that support their existence are poorly understood. We examine conditions affecting the stability of a salient kind of complex cultural attractor in human language, known as inflectional classes. We present a model of the evolution of inflectional classes, as they are reconstructed across generations via a combination of direct transmission and analogical inference. Parameters examined pertain to diversity of the lexicon and the cog-nitive policies governing inferential reasoning. We discover that persistence of stable inflection classes interacts in complex ways with features which affect how inflection classes are inferred. Thus we contribute to a greater understanding of factors affecting cultural attractors' existence, and to insights into a widespread and complex trait of human language.
Kala Lagaw Ya is the language of the western and central islands of the Torres Strait. It exhibits an extremely complex pattern of 'split argument coding' ('split ergativity'), which has previously been considered typologically exceptional and problematic for widely discussed universals of argument coding dating back to work by Silverstein, Comrie and Dixon in the 1970s, and framed in terms of an 'animacy' or 'nominal' hierarchy. Furthermore, the two main dialects of the language, which centre around Saibai Island and Mabuiag Island, differ in the detail of their argument coding in interesting ways. In this paper we argue that once we take into account other typologically well-attested principles concerning the effect of markedness on neutralization in the morphological coding of grammatical categories, and in particular recent proposals about the typology of number marking systems, the Kala Lagaw Ya system falls into place as resulting from the unexceptional interaction of a number of universal tendencies. On this view, the case systems of the two dialects of Kala Lagaw Ya, while complex, appear not to be typologically exceptional. This account can be taken as a case study contributing to our understanding of universals of argument coding and how they relate to forces affecting the neutralization of morphological marking. The reframing of the Kala Lagaw Ya facts then has broader implications: it reinforces the value of viewing complex patterns as the result of the interaction of simpler, more regular forces, and in so doing it also lends further empirical weight to the universals of argument coding which Kala Lagaw Ya was previously thought to violate.
Phylogenetic comparative methods are new in our field and are shrouded, for most linguists, in at least a little mystery. Yet the path that led to their discovery in comparative biology is so similar to the methodological history of balanced sampling, that it is only an accident of history that they were not discovered by a linguistic typologist. Here we clarify the essential logic behind phylogenetic comparative methods and their fundamental relatedness to a deep intellectual tradition focussed on sampling. Then we introduce concepts, methods and tools which will enable typologists to use these methods in everyday typological research. The key commonality of phylogenetic comparative methods and balanced sampling is that they attempt to deal with statistical non-independence due to genealogy. Whereas sampling can never achieve independence and requires most comparative data to be discarded, phylogenetic comparative methods achieve independence while retaining and using all comparative data. We discuss the essential notions of phylogenetic signal; uncertainty about trees; typological averages and proportions that are sensitive to genealogy; comparison across language families; and the effects of areality. Extensive supplementary materials illustrate computational tools for practical analysis and we illustrate the methods discussed with a typological case study of the laminal contrast in Pama-Nyungan.
Notes accompanying a dataset of 392 Australian phonemic inventories contributed to PHOIBLE 2.0. The dataset is an explicitly typological one, which seeks to deal even-handedly with numerous issues that arise in the cross-linguistic comparison of Australian phoneme inventories. These notes explain how and why the inventories will appear to differ from the ultimate source documents.