Rara & Rarissima —
Collecting and interpreting unusual characteristics of human languages
Leipzig (Germany), 29 March - 1 April 2006

[Home] [Call for Papers] [Registration] [Travel & Accomodation] [Abstracts[Schedule] [Venue]

Click here for the detailed list of talks.

Frans Plank
3rd Person Plural in Distancing Pronominal Address for Individuals: Rare by Chance or Necessity?

Given that something is humanly possible for homo sapiens sapiens loquens, i.e., is not proscribed by absolute linguistic or also cognitive universals, it may be found to be frequent or rare across languages, or of course also evenly distributed.  Frequency and rarity can be due to chance or necessity.  Something will be rare by chance, linguistically speaking, if a speech community is not successful, and something will be frequent if a speech community is successful, in surviving and spreading, or becoming so dominant as to be able to pass on their own speech peculiarities to other speech communities it is in contact with.  Frequency and rarity by linguistic necessity are commonly accounted for in terms of structural complexity:  what is more complex, in one way or another (relating to storage, production, or perception of forms and constructions), will supposedly be rarer than what is less complex.  Something can also be frequent or rare by historical-linguistic necessity (rather than population-historical chance):  what takes long to be innovated and/or is fast gotten rid of will, ceteris paribus, be encountered less frequently across languages, at any one time, than what is innovated fast and pertinaciously hangs on when grammars and lexicosn are passed on from generation to generation, even to new generations of other speech communities.  The relationship between achronic and diachronic necessity is intriguingly conditional:  it could be that achronic constraints, relating to structural complexity, are responsible for what is happening or is not happening, or is happening fast or slow, diachronically;  or it could also be that constraints on how forms and constructions can be reanalysed diachronically, and are available for acquisition and subsequent reanalysis in the first place, are responsible for the grammars and lexicons that happen to be internalised (and socially shared) at any one time.

The phenomenon (or phenomena) that I would like to look at in this sort of context are pronominal terms of honorific, in particular distancing, address.  If a distance contrast for 2nd person pronouns for addressing individuals is made at all, it is most frequently 2nd person plural or other non-singular pronouns that are used for honorific singular address (as if to aggrandise the addressee, and correspondingly humble the speaker).  Less frequently, person is shifted rather than, or in addition to, number (as if to consider the addressee not involved in the speech act):  pronouns of 3rd person singular, or also plural or other non-singular, can also be used for respectful, deferential, or at any rate distancing singular address.  In terms of complexity, one would expect 3rd singular to be more frequent than 3rd non-singular for this purpose:  it would only require one shift (2nd to 3rd person) as opposed to two (2nd to 3rd person, singular to non-singular number).  This latter complexity-inspired expectation does not in fact seem to be borne out:  among the languages that shift to 3rd person, more simultaneously also shift to non-singular than keep the 3rd person pronoun singular.  (At least this is the frequency distribution in the convenience sample of some 100 languages of Head 1978:  of 19 languages with 3rd-person-for-single-addressee, at least 13 have this 3rd person in the plural.)

What I would like to argue in particular is that looking at crosslinguistic frequency distributions of distancing through 3rd singular vs. non-singular pronouns for single addressees is misleading because it suggests that we are looking at a homogeneous set of phenomena.  When one adopts a diachronic perspective, it is seen that such 3rd person distant addressing can come about in different ways — and some of them, in particular that of mere metaphorical person and perhaps number shifting, are easier and faster than others.  The starting point of the other, slower way (or family of ways) of getting 3rd person distant addressee pronouns are nouns — nouns for social relationships on the one hand (such as ‘master’ and ‘servant’), and nouns for abstract qualities of speech-act participants on the other (such as ‘your highness/honour’ and ‘my lowliness/shame’:  pars pro toto, namely abstract quality for person).  It is the diachronic scenarios of addressing through such abstract qualities, and of the syntactic constructions such terms of address form part of (in particular with respect to agreement), that are my central concern in this paper.  

One thing that can happen to such nominal terms of metonymic address is that they are themselves reanalysed as (more and more) pronominal (cf. Spanish usted, Portuguese você, or also, though created somewhat differently, Dutch U);  a question here is how such pronominalisations are accommodated in systems of person.  The alternative for nominal terms of abstract-quality address is to remain nouns, but to be coreferenced by personal pronouns corresponding in person, number, and relevant other agreement categories (including in particular gender/class):  ‘your honour ... it’.  The gaining of referential (addressing) autonomy of such originally only coreferential pronouns eventually leads to a new pronominal subcategory of distancing pronouns (cf. Italian Lei) — which again raises the question of how they are accommodated in systems of person.  Given that abstract nouns (‘honour, grace, highness ...’), the sources of such new distancing pronouns of singular address, will usually be singular, the other question is how such single-addressee pronouns can end up being morphologically plural (as with German Sie).  There would seem to be two ways, not necessarily mutually exclusive:  the more straightforward one is to manipulate number independently, provided metaphorical (‘aggrandising’) pluralisation is practised in the speech community anyhow;  more intricately, it may need a conspiracy of morphological accidents (abstract nouns which are actually plural, and/or an inflectional system conducive to number reanalyses of relevant forms) to pave the way for anaphoric-pronouns-to-be-distancing-pronouns being plural.  While its outcome — 3rd person plural for distancing address of individuals — is not forbiddingly complex, this latter diachronic story itself is so complex that it will rarely be seen to have run to completion.

Larry HymanAffixation by Place of Articulation: Rare and mysterious

The Niger-Congo languages of Africa are well-known for the complexity of their verb extension systems. In subgroups as far apart as Bantu and Atlantic, a verb root may be extended by several derivational suffixes marking such notions as causative, applicative, reciprocal,  and passive. There may also be suffixes marking middle voice,  pluractionality, or various inflectional categories (tense, aspect, mood, polarity). A rather complex example comes from the Eastern Bantu language, Ciyao (Ngunga 2000):

    taam-uk-ul-igw-aasy-an-il-a    ‘cause each other  to be unseated for/at’    (cf. /taam-/ ‘sit’)


The Ciyao example shows that multiple suffixes can combine to form derived stems with no apparent principled upper limit,  many Northwest Bantu (NWB) and other more westerly Niger-Congo languages impose prosodic constraints on the stem. The most common such constraints involves an upper limit of syllables, e.g. four in Yaka,  Punu (NWB); three in Koyo, Basaa (NWB); two in Mankon (Grassfields Bantu). In addition, whereas  all consonants can appear in all positions in stem-unrestricted languages such as Ciyao, the same westerly languages tend to restrict the inventory and combinatorics of consonants in non-stem-initial position.

In this talk I will be concerned with the morphological consequences of  such phonological constraints.  Not surprisingly, if there is an upper limit on the number of syllables permitted, there may not be enough room for a suffix or suffixes to be added to certain verb bases. Much more surprising, however, is what happens when the sequence of non-initial consonants isconstrained by place of articulation.  In Tiene (NWB), for example, stems are maximally C1VC2VC3V (Ellington 1977). In addition, C2 must be coronal (alveolar or palatal), while C3 must be noncoronal (labial or velar). This works out fine in the following example, where the C2 of the root is alveolar and the C3 of the stative extension is velar:

    faasa    ‘drive through’    -->    fas-ak-a    ‘be driven through’

However, in the following example, the C2 of the root is velar and the C3 of the causative extension is alveolar:

    lóka    ‘vomit’    -->    lósekε    ‘cause to vomit’    (expected: *lók-esε)

As a result of the place restrictions, the /s/ of the causative occurs as C2, i.e. preceding root /k/, which appears as C3. In both examples, the stem has the shape CVsVk-V, but two outputs are obtained in different ways.

What this means is that an extension may be suffixed vs. infixed depending on its place of articulation and/or that of the base to which is is affixed.

This is highly unusual--and mysterious--and yet I have found such phenomena in two separate Niger-Congo language clusters: (i) the Teke languages, including Tiene, spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon; (ii) the Central Plateau group of Nigeria, e.g. Izere (Blench 2000) and Birom (Bouquiaux 1970). Since these groups have independently innovated very similar distribution patterns and infixation by place of articulation, the questions that naturally arise are how did the coronal-noncoronal sequential constraint come into being—and why?

There seem to be two logical possibilities:  (i) The sequential constraint is an historical “accident”: Earlier statistically skewed distributions by place of articulation, which may have had to do with noncoronal consonants being more prevalent in outlying suffixes, have been regularized through analogy. (ii) The sequential constraint is principled: There is a phonological  motivation for coronals to precede noncoronals in prosodic constituents.

In my talk I will show that the first hypothesis  cannot be correct for several reasons. This leads me therefore to consider different explanations as to why coronals might tend to precede noncoronals in the way described. I conclude with an interesting example from Shangzhai (Sun 2002), a Tibeto-Burman language of the rGyarong subgroup in which the alveolar causative prefix s- is infixed after the first of an initial two-consonant cluster (s-CCV --> CsCV, which may be further modified),  but only if the first consonant is noncoronal! If it is correct to identify left-edge s-infixing in Shangzhai with right-edge coronal infixing in the Niger-Congo cases, we may have a mirror-image generalization that noncoronals tend to be domain-peripheral while coronals tend to be domain-medial. While this observation is not without its own difficulties and is violated by some rather well-known languages (e.g. English), even if there is something to it, it still begs the question as to why this might be so.

This abstract can also be accessed here (PDF).

Ian MaddiesonPhonetic rara
Lecture in memory of Peter Ladefoged

This talk, dedicated to the memory of Peter Ladefoged, will take up some of the issues raised by the occurrence of rare phonetic segments.
    In Ladefoged & Everett's 1996 paper 'The status of phonetic rarities' the authors suggest that "two types of features, those required for widespread phonological processes, and those that specify phonetic rarities" should be distinguished.  The implicit prediction here is that rare phonetic phenomena employ different resources from common ones (rather than unfamiliar combinations of familar features).  This premise will be examined in the light of data from cross-language surveys and on individual languages, particularly the Chapakuran languages examined by L&E which exemplify the celebrated dental stop with bilabial trilled release.  It will be shown that background assumptions about segmentation, contrast and phonetic classification play a role in creating the impression that rare segments use distinct resources.  Further attention  should also be given to the factor of variation in production.  Small variations along familiar articulatory dimensions can produce quite different outputs corresponding to the 'same' segment.  When such variability of production is taken into account all languages have phonetic rarities.

Daniel L. EverettCase studies of rara: the general vs the specific in the formation of American linguistics and philosophy
Lecture in memory of Peter Ladefoged

    In this presentation I will consider rare sounds and rare constructions from Amazonian languages, drawing from my own and others' field research. I present a case for a return to a Boasian and Jamesian view of science, a view at once complementary to and counterbalancing for the 'move away from Boas' that has led to modern theoretical linguistics, functional linguistics, and typology.

    Early American linguistics was shaped by the concerns of Franz Boas and his students (e.g. Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict) to document minority cultures and languages, taking for granted their equality with European languages. To better establish their equality, a great deal of effort was expended on demonstrating what was unique to or distinctive about each language and culture studied. I understand this focus on the 'genius' of each language to be the essence of American Descriptivism. This concern for the particulars of cultures and languages was a direct outgrowth of the philosophy of American Pragmatism, which developed principally from the work of W. James, C.S. Peirce, and J. Dewey, Boas's colleague and friend at Columbia University. In its turn, American Pragmatism was an outgrowth of American Indian philosophy, joined with European philosophy and American 'pioneering spirit' (though far too much has been made of the latter's philosophical importance). Subsequent American philosophy and American linguistics abandoned their indigenous roots and returned with a vengeance to the logical positivism and Structuralism of Europe.

    In this talk I examine the following cases of rara: (i) the discovery and treatment of onset-sensitive stress in Piraha; (ii) the discovery of object-initial languages in Carib; and (iii) the discovery of non-configurational languages in Australia contrasted with the non-recursive system I have claimed to exist for Piraha. I will argue that the 'culture of truth' cultivated in non-American Indian American and European philosophies has led to a curious state of ambivalence towards rara and that in general non-scientific considerations determine which rara make the scientific agenda and which do not. We want to know how they fit, but they don't fit. And their lack of fit bothers our desire for truth. This will help us understand why so many anthropologists have criticized Boas for collecting disjointed Kwakiutl texts.

Last updated: March 11, 2006