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The Evolution of Morphological Agreement

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Richard Littauer

on 5 March 2012

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Transcript of The Evolution of Morphological Agreement

The Evolution of Morphological Agreement by Richard Littauer
University of Edinburgh
@richlitt
richard.littauer@gmail.com www.123rf.com Terms Evolution of Morphology Uses for Agreement Conclusion Agreement - What is it?
Evolution of Morphology
Uses for Agreement
Implications The essential notion is the covariance or matching of feature specifications between two separate elements. Corbett also usefully defines ‘target’, ‘domain’, ‘controller’, and ‘agreement features’ - his definitions will be followed (Corbett 1998: 191) “The most productive case of agreement across languages appears to be subject-verb agreement. Even languages with little or no agreement elsewhere in their grammars, such as English, may exhibit subject-verb agreement, however residually.” (Hawkins 1994: 370) “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (Dobzhansky 1973) Abstract: Agreement is seen as coming either late in the evolution of language (Heine & Kuteva 2007), or being an essential part of semantic neural mapping (Hurford 2002, Casey and Kleunder 1995). It has varied starting points, but the main justification for its existence, and the area to look for evolutionary clues, lies in the function of agreement, which covers pro-drop, redundancy, parsing, and syntactic marking, among others. Pro-drop in particular suggests varying complexity in morphological agreement, which, along with studies of pidgins and child language acquisition, suggests that morphology occurred simultaneously with protosyntax in protolanguage (Carstairs-McCarthy 1994). A study of universals backs this up by showing the remnants of the first morphological functions, particularly those of agreement (Corbett 2006). In this presentation, I will cover these features in relation to the evolution of agreement, using a broad literature review and individual analyses, and I will argue that agreement is an integral part of language evolution and suggest areas for future study. The conventional historical explanation for morphology traces it to proto-syntax and phonology (Carstairs-McCarthy 1994: 46)

Protosyntax is far more studied, mostly due to controversies over where to put morphology:
its own component (Aranoff 1993)
wherever it is relevant to the syntax (Anderson 2004)
out of access of the syntax entirely (Chomsky 1970)
in the lexicon (Jensen 2004: 237)
as a cohesive whole with syntax (Bickerton 1990)
partially overlapping with syntax (Sadock 2004) There is also a common view of morphology as independently built on top of protolanguage, at the same time as syntax.

There are arguments for this:
agreement markers do not always follow syntactic order (Comrie 1980)
relatively free word order of some languages (like Latin) (Samson 2009: 4)
its use for clause combining (Heine & Kuteva 2007: 349) Of course, there are issues with Grammaticalisation theories such as proposed by Hopper and Traugott, as they require a loss of morphosyntactic properties as part of the process, and it is these processes that we are looking for the creation of. Evolution of Agreement? Heine and Kuteva (2007):
six gradual stages from protolanguage to modern, and agreement occurs on the sixth (so is the last to evolve). Finally, the source of various agreement markings are often fronted as justifications for its evolution.

However, agreement is not always telistic, nor affected only by erosion (Corbett 2006: 273)

And furthermore, agreement lies on the interface between syntax and semantics (consider the phrase "the committee have decided"). So all of this has to be incorporated into a theory, which means that describing a straightforward origin of a single marker will not help. So, let us not take it for granted that agreement is useless trash. "Uninterpretable features are the mechanism that implements the displacement property." (Chomsky 2000: 12;13-14)

Carstairs-McCarthy disputes this, citing Latin. Givon gives many examples: (Givon 1976: 173).
First he gives the example of pro-drop, where verb agreement allows for subjectless sentences, as the agreement takes on a pronominal function (according to some theories).
Second, in redundant, predictable, obligatory verb- subject agreement cases, the agreement can become a way of signalling the syntactic type. This is apparently attested in Tok Pisin, where ‘him’ has grammaticalised into a marker for transitive verbs. (Givo n 1976: 168). Thirdly, correct case marking in identical parsed forms can be identified due to mismatching of agreement features, such that the correct case is understood.
Fourthly, agreement allows a synchronic analysis of evolutionarily transitional processes, when, for a short time, agreement differentiates between the stable subordinate clauses and the innovative environment of the main clause.
Finally, the ability of verb agreement to mark the verb’s syntactic type, as well as its general semantic-selectional typology, is mentioned. (Givon 1976: 171) There are others proposed uses for agreement:
Hawkins (1994) created a syntactic theory that used syntactic agreement as a way of marking nodes for help in parsing. Kirby (1999) followed this up in simulations.
Levin (2001) mentioned that it might help with reference tracking.
Levin also noted the importance of marking constituency.
Siewierska (1998: 505-8) noted that freer worder order leads to more agreement, which, in Protolanguage, would be very interesting and expected.
Corbett (1999): agreement allowes expression of different perspectives (the committee has/have ...)
Jackendoff (2002): signalling thematic roles.
Anderson (and others) note pronominal effect, which allows pro-drop.
Sadock (1991) and Autolexical syntax allow for agreements to be arguments. ”Given that the evidence for each of the proposed functions is not fully convincing, it appears unlikely that agreement is to be explained in terms of a single function. Rather, it has different combinations of functions in different languages.” (Corbett 2006: 275) Parallels? Sadly, almost no pidgins or creoles have agreement marking. The closest example has been that of Palu’e, an Austronesian language from Indonesia, which has begun to cliticise its first person pronoun subject to the front end of the verb. (Corbett 2006: 266) But do not fear! ”Grammaticalisation can hardly explain fully the origin of morphology as a pattern of grammatical organisation distinct from syntax.” (Carstairs-McCarthy 2010: 50)

Furthermore, studies like Dunn, Gray, & Greenhill the other week suggest that the previous language may have a major effect on things, and that quick, almost a priori languages such as pidgins and creoles may not be the best guide. Ontogeny? Children figure out the basic properties of the agreement system very early on, at the same time as syntactically significant production (Cinque & Kayne 2005: 99) Furthermore, Greek children have been shown to learn agreement markers faster than, say, English learners, which shows that the morpholgical complexity of a language is not a hindrance (just look at Archi, with over 1.5 million contrasting forms.) (Atsos 2011, Samson 2009) Universals? Corbett reduced his hierarchy to three basic principles, which fit the bill for what proto-morphology might have looked like (Corbett 2006: 26-7):

• Principle I: Canonical agreement is redundant rather than informative.
• Principle II: Canonical agreement is syntactically simple.
• Principle III: The closer the expression of agreement is to canonical (i.e. affixal) inflec-tional morphology, the more canonical it is as agreement. But as Kirby (1999: 119) states:
“It is not good enough simply to define a structural complexity hierarchy and assume it directly gives rise to a cross-linguistic hierarchy, because one needs to explain why not all languages opt for minimum complexity - that is, the top end of the hierarchy.”

This may be due to the reasons listed above, regarding costs, benefits, and functional load. Alternatively, it may be due to the possible nature of “language universals as products of cultural influence.” (Sampson 2009: 15) Hurford (2002):
“agreement is part of the apparatus for mapping pre-linguistic representations onto strings”, therefore it must have evolved earlier than Grammaticalisation theory would have you say it does. (But who does it benefit, the speaker or hearer?) Casey & Kleunder (1995):
the use of redundancy in mapping semantic relations justifies an early creation and maintenance of agreement. (This is not the only function, though, and post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy.) So, given the tons of uses for agreement that were covered And given the many theories that try to integrate agreement into syntax as an afterthought And given that grammaticalisation, creolisation, and ontogenic growth are not necessarily perfect parellels for cultural evolution… I suggest that we start taking agreement seriously. Which is to say that it may be a valid living fossil of protolanguage, and that, especially if we view morphology as a workable contrastive system to syntax, and if we reconcile the syntacticians to the idea that morphology might be important… …we might be able to state accurately that an overview of agreement in the light of language evolution and an overview of language evolution in the light of agreement is necessary and potentially illuminating. One undergraduate was hurt in the making of this study...

That is all.

Questions? References available upon request. Possible future work would include:
cross-linguistic first language agreement acquisition (specifically across families)
more studies into linguistic complexity involving speaking community size
branching into theoretical studies that look at morphology as equally important to syntax in protolanguage
simulations of morphological redundancy (which, computationally, may not be easy.) s
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