The structure of a language changes quickly when a large enough share of its users are not native speakers

Linguistic typologist Kaius Sinnemäki studies structures of languages with databases. Considerable and hotly competitive ERC funding will secure the research activities for the next five years.

Being granted one and a half million euros in research funding feels like winning a gold medal in the Olympics, even if Kaius Sinnemäki does not really want to consider researchers in his field as competing against each other. In the autumn, Sinnemäki received a competitive ERC Starting Grant after a burdensome application process.

Sinnemäki, who conducts his research at the University of Helsinki, investigates how the structure of language adapts to the social structures of the speech community, for example, the size of the community, and how much a language is learnt as a second language.  His data comprises 150 different languages. The project belongs both to linguistic typology and sociolinguistics.

“The hypothesis is that the structure of a language will adapt to various learning and use environments,” says Sinnemäki.

“If there is a great deal of language contact within a speech community, that is to say, many adults learn the language of the community not as native speakers but as a second language, the declension of a noun or conjugation of a verb may become simplified. However, in a small secluded language community with a language whose status is not particularly esteemed, the morphological system of the language may even become more complex.”

"The structure of a language will adapt to various learning and use environments."

For example, Norwegian has changed a great deal when compared with Old Norse, whereas Icelandic has remained much more stable. In Icelandic, verbs are inflected by person and the case marking system is rich, whereas Norwegian verbs are no longer marked for person and nouns and objects no longer have case marking, except for the pronouns.  

The active Hansa trade in the large towns in southern and western Norway brought with it a considerable number of Low Saxon speakers. According to Sinnemäki, many researchers believe this contact to be the cause for the rapid change experienced by Norwegian. There was less Hansa trade in Iceland, and similar linguistic changes did not occur there.

Linguistic typologist interested in spoken language

Linguistic typology works with databases of dozens or hundreds of languages, such as the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), Glottolog and Ethnologue.

The researchers also build, expand and analyse the databases themselves. They are no strangers to field work either.

“Many linguistic typologists are engaged in field work in a certain language area or family. The Helsinki Area & Language Studies research network, established in 2013, has organised several field trips abroad. The participants have been doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and other staff. Thanks to rapidly increasing immigration, it has become possible to do much more field work even in Helsinki.”

Linguistic typology focuses mainly on spoken languages; half of the languages in the world do not have a written form. In addition, written languages include many features no longer present in speech. For example, person markings are no longer audible in speech in French verbs.

Linguistic typology focuses mainly on spoken languages; half of the languages in the world do not have a written form.

Written languages are also often constructions, which may imitate other languages when they are created. Consequently, written languages of two different languages may be surprisingly similar. For example, the model of Western written languages has affected the norms in the Thai written language. It is therefore possible to be led astray when comparing languages if research data in one language comes from the written language and in the other from the spoken language.

Even Finnish, a small language, comes into contact with other languages

It is clear then that various socio-historical events have an effect on linguistic changes. Could large-scale changes, such as the disappearance of inflection by person, happen also to Sinnemäki’s native language, Finnish?

“That would require substantial immigration. Half a million or a million people speaking Finnish as their second language might start bringing about such changes,” says Sinnemäki.

Finland has a population of 5.5. million.

He further points out that the example from Norwegian and Icelandic is not comparable with contemporary Finnish. A solid level of literacy probably decelerates or inhibits any significant impact of language contacts. There was no general compulsory education in the Middle Ages, and few people went to school or could read and write. Written language, which is regulated and maintained, changes more slowly, whereas changes can occur more quickly in spoken language.

However, Sinnemäki does not consider it impossible that as a result of climate change or some other great upheaval, Finnish might encounter changes of this magnitude.

However, Sinnemäki does not consider it impossible that as a result of climate change or some other great upheaval, Finnish might encounter changes of this magnitude.

Research produces new open databases

The objectives and benefits of ERC-funded research are both academic and social.

“Combining two internationally established and significant fields of research, linguistic typology and sociolinguistics, is new. New kinds of methods and concepts are expected from the research results as well as fresh basic research on how the structure of languages adapts to social factors. New open databases are also created as a by-product of the research.”

Sinnemäki hopes that nonfiction books aimed at the general public can be produced on the subject. For example, language teachers might be interested in questions such as why it is difficult for some people to learn Finnish while some find it easy, and with what kinds of problems learners from other language backgrounds struggle.

Read moreKaius Sinnemäki: Use of digital methods must be grounded in theory

A researcher’s tips for applying for ERC funding

Start by contacting Research Services of the University of Helsinki. They will provide extremely competent support from there, even by European standards. If your network includes researchers who have received ERC funding, it is a good idea to ask them for feedback on your research idea.

Kaius Sinnemäki’s research topic matured for a long time while a position at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies enabled work on other topics. According to Sinnemäki, the keys to getting ERC funding were the increased self-confidence, in which his colleagues played a great role, the right timing and the clarification of the subject matter: this is how this topic should be approached.

The project will start around the new year. In addition to Sinnemäki, the team comprises three postdoctoral researchers, a research assistant and a project coordinator.