World’s linguistic diversity in its social context

General linguist Kaius Sinnemäki and his ERC funded research group develop new methods for comparing the world’s languages in their social contexts to better understand global linguistic diversity and its development.

Who are you?

I am Kaius Sinnemäki, associate professor of quantitative and comparative linguistics. I received my PhD in general linguistics at the University of Helsinki in 2011, then spent a year as an acting lecturer at the University of Tampere, and since 2013 have been back at the University of Helsinki. Since 2019 I am leading a research group that is composed of eight people, most of whom are funded by the European Research Council (ERC). We are a diverse group with skills in language comparison, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, corpus linguistics, and language technology. Please do get in touch with us if you want to know more about us or our work.

How did your research group get started?

In 2018 I received a five-year ERC Starting Grant for the project Linguistic Adaptation: Typological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives to Language Variation. My group is interdisciplinary and is composed of three postdocs, Francesca Di GarboRicardo Napoleão de Souza and Eri Kashima, three part-time assistants and a PhD student. Our research combines comparison of the world’s languages to research sociolinguistic variation and language change in a way that enables us to better understand the social nature of language use and change.

What are three things that every member of the university community should know about your research?

Multilingualism is the norm in light of the world’s languages and their histories, whereas monolingual nation states are a recent development. This is why we compare languages also in multilingual contexts, since it importantly increases our understanding of human language and communication.

Most languages in the history of humankind have been spoken and signed by small people groups. To better understand why languages are the way they are, we include not just well-described languages used by large populations, such as English or Finnish, but also those spoken and signed by smaller people groups.

Languages have always changed, and will continue to change. We are investigating more carefully whether there are some recurrent social patterns to the way languages change. Using labels such as "Finnish" or "English" make it sound like these languages are objects that have been around forever, but such simple labels may obscure complexities of the real world.

How will your research change the world?

My work has been recently funded by the European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. The aim of the project is to better understand how language structures may adapt to the social context of language learning and use from a worldwide comparative perspective. Worldwide comparison of languages is relevant to the issue of linguistic equality, because we research languages used by very diverse groups of people from all over the world. I hope that our work increases awareness of minority languages that are often spoken and signed by societally marginalized people.

The way we compare languages and societies has nothing to do with ranking or judgement-passing like was done in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The methodology we are developing is an exercise in identifying commonalities in features and experiences across societies, which can then be related to commonalities in the functioning of language structures. In a world that seems divided into "tribes" (nation/race/religion etc.) and in a field that still suffers from Eurocentrism to some degree, we think our project serves as a reminder that, as diverse as human societies can be, there are commonalities shared across human societies all across the world.

Please tell us one especially memorable moment or thing, which your group has experienced or achieved

For our group the most memorable moment is probably a team-trip to Tallinn in October 2019 which was the first time the whole researcher team came together. We spent three intensive days getting to know more about the project, about one another, and to plan the next steps together. It was amazing to see how the team started to form and how it felt at the end of those three days as if we had already collaborated with one another for a longer time. A splendid start for the project.

What other University of Helsinki research group do you follow and/or admire?

We are most closely related with researchers in general linguistics and with the Helsinki Area and Language Studies (HALS) research network, which brings together linguists interested in documenting, preserving, and researching the world’s linguistic diversity. Johanna Nichols, a visiting professor in the Helsinki University Humanities Program, has been an important partner already at the idea stage of the project.