The project Linguistic Adaptation (GramAdapt; read the official project summary) fills a need in linguistics to systematically research whether language structures are affected similarly across languages by the sociolinguistic environments in which they are, and have been, learned and used. Earlier cross-linguistic research in this area has used largely demographic data, such as population size, which is, however, just one of the many sociolinguistic aspects that linguists have hypothesized to influence language structures. The project will develop new methods for comparing sociolinguistic environments and linguistic structures to one another across languages and new analyses that will enable researching linguistic adaptation in principled ways. The project ultimately aims to answer the question whether languages adapt to sociolinguistic environment in similar ways across the very diverse languages of the world.
In sociolinguistic research the idea of comparison is applied in many ways, for instance, when determining if the pronunciation of certain sounds of a language have changed over time in different social groups. However, sociolinguistic environments have not commonly been compared to one another across different languages and, therefore, language typology and sociolinguistics have remained largely separate sub-fields of linguistics. This project builds on the knowledge that has accumulated over decades in language typology on how languages can and should be compared to one another and applies this knowledge to comparing sociolinguistic environments to one another. This methodological development will function as a basis for developing a typology of sociolinguistic environments.
Collaboration in data collection
Data on sociolinguistic environments and social histories of different languages will be curated from published sociolinguistic and ethnographic descriptions. A lot of relevant material has already been published on many languages, but for a number of languages such material is still unavailable. For those languages for which we do not have relevant sociolinguistic data we will collaborate with several researchers who are specialists on different language families and geographical regions.
The rationale for combining sociolinguistic and typological approaches to language variation rests on the idea that ultimately both approaches research how language is used in communication. We thus hypothesize that different sociolinguistic environments may condition the way languages are learned and used so much so that languages change accordingly in systematic ways and this can also be captured in cross-linguistic analysis.
An influential set of hypotheses in this research area suggests that small communities with dense social networks, few adult learners, and a great deal of shared knowledge favor linguistic structures that can be managed by native speakers but that are difficult for adult second language learners. Such structures include irregularity (e.g., strong verbs vs. regular past tense in English: swam vs. play-ed), non-transparent structures (e.g., thrice and pediatrician are less transparent than three times and children’s doctor), and redundancy (e.g., agreement he sing-s vs. I sing). Many case studies suggest that larger languages with more language contact, on the contrary, have structures that are easier for adult second language learners. Thus, a central hypothesis in our research is that sociolinguistic environment may influence not just any kind of changes in language but changes that involve language complexity or difficulty. Accordingly, a large part of the typological analysis of language structures will focus on analyzing different types of structures in terms of their complexity or difficulty to a language user, particularly to adult second language learners. Evaluation of language complexity/difficulty will be based on relevant findings in experimental and developmental research.
The meaning of the project for future research
The main hypothesis of the project is that language structures adapt to the societal environment in which languages are learned and used. We research this hypothesis by developing a theoretical and methodological synthesis of typological and sociolinguistic approaches to language variation. We argue that sociolinguistic environments can be compared to one another by applying the same principles that are used in language typology. Data on mostly morphological structures and on aspects of sociolinguistic environments will be collected from up to 150 languages to research the hypothesis. Typological data will be curated and analyzed primarily from reference grammars which are descriptions of the principal properties of a language’s sound system. The analyzed typological and sociolinguistic data will be made openly available to other researchers. The theoretical framework, the methodological tools, and the data analyses that will be produced in the project will enable other researchers to study linguistic adaptation in a principled way. The data will enable new questions to be asked by linguists, cognitive scientists, and anthropologists and the tools may be later applied to new sociolinguistic factors. The outcomes of the project will increase our understanding of how social context may influence the way language structures are used and learned in different societal contexts and, ultimately, whether such contexts condition language change in systematic ways across the diverse languages of the world.