LSA 215: Linguistic areas and language contact (with a focus on Southeast Asia)

Nick Enfield | session 2 | MW 1:30 – 3:15, 179 Stanley Hall

This course looks at how historical contact between speech communities results in convergence of structure in neighboring languages. The course consists of three sections of two sessions each. The first section reviews previous work on the topic of 'linguistic areas' and areal linguistics more generally. The second section goes into more detail on the linguistic features common to languages of mainland Southeast Asia, a 'linguistic area par excellence', as Dahl puts it. The area has the highest number of distinct language families for the lowest degree of typological diversity. The third section explores the theoretical upshot of the descriptive sections of the course. One conclusion is that questions of whether or not linguistic areas exist, or whether a certain area is or is not a linguistic area, are not the most interesting questions to be asking. The real issue is to understand the mechanisms whereby convergence-through-contact happens. It is therefore necessary to explicate what Sperber has called a 'naturalistic' account of convergence effects, that is, an explicit account of the causal processes involved. This means teasing out a set of biases on the transmission of linguistic innovation in populations. These biases are both cognitive and sociometric (pertaining to social networks). The resulting account places areal linguistic effects into a broader account of cultural transmission, contact, and change.

Reading: Selected materials available online.

Areas of linguistics: Areal and historical linguistics; Languages of Eurasia

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