Nam Noi | Background
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 BACKGROUND

Research on language contact and change has made great advances over the last 30 or so years (see Weinreich 1951, Thomason and Kaufman 1988, Dixon 1997, Thomason 2001, Aikhenvald & Dixon 2006, Muysken 2008, Matras 2010, Trudgill 2011 on the issues raised here and below). Three key lines of research lay the groundwork:

Convergence among languages, measured by selected linguistic features

Language areas and convergence across languages have been widely studied all over the world, from India to the Balkans to Europe to Mesoamerica to Australia to SE Asia (see Gumperz and Wilson 1971, Thomason 2001, Aikhenvald and Dixon 2006, Muysken 2008, Matras 2010). Typically, these studies and analyses are based on small but judiciously selected sets of linguistic features (usually around 20 or so features), rather than comprehensive comparison of entire linguistic systems.

Inter-community relations, measured in different ways

Social relations between communities in language contact situations have been studied using several different approaches: primary ethnography, secondary use of ethnographic sources, and sociolinguistic questionnaires (for these approaches, see Milroy 1980, LePage & Tabouret-Keller 1985, Thomason and Kaufmann 1988, Ross 1997, Evans and McConvell 1997, Nettle 1999, Aikhenvald 2002, Enfield 2011). Some subset of these approaches tends to be applied in each case.

Research in mainland SE Asia has made progress despite poor data coverage of minority languages

There has been a healthy tradition of research on convergence in the grammars of languages of different families in SE Asia (Henderson 1967, Huffman 1973, Matisoff 1973, 1991, Clark 1985, Bisang 1991, Enfield 2005, Grant & Sidwell 2005, Enfield and Comrie 2015). This work has made good progress despite a relative shortage of good reference grammars of the languages of this area, and a need for greater depth in sociolinguistic research, especially in connection with non-national languages that make up the vast majority of languages spoken in the area.

The efforts of earlier researchers in these three lines of work on language contact and areal linguistics have prepared the ground into which this project will push forward. The field is poised for the following advances to be made now:

– Measuring convergence at the level of whole grammatical systems

– Studying inter-community relations using an integrated multi-method approach

– Increasing empirical coverage in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on minority languages

The payoff of making these advances will not only be to enrich and extend this research area, but also to show its relevance to other disciplines, and its potential societal impacts. If the project can provide explicit causal explanations of the observed patterns of language convergence and their relation to the context of stable maintenance of ethnic boundaries in the Nam Noy valley, then we will have laid the groundwork for productive new directions in research, with broader implications.

Significance of the research

Empirical significance: The project will add a considerable amount of primary data to our currently inadequate knowledge of the minority languages of SE Asia, and the patterns of language contact and inter-ethnic relations. This is especially true for Laos. A window of opportunity for research in Laos has recently opened for the first time, and will close again very soon. For political reasons, little research has been possible in Laos, and the very rapid rate of modernization in Laos today is creating such radical social changes that the relatively stable multilingualism and ethnic pluralism we now see will disappear permanently. Essentially, it’s now or never.

Methodological significance: The project will extend and develop state-of-the-art field methods and techniques for the parallel description of languages, and will apply and develop workflows using the latest and best quality data annotation and archiving practices.

Theoretical significance: The project will contribute to developing, extending, and testing current theory and conceptual frameworks concerning the relation between ethnic identity and language, and the relation between the micro level of social network relations and the macro level of linguistic systems. 

Conceptual framework, methods, timelines

The linguistic framework to be used is basic linguistic theory (Dryer 2006, Dixon 2010), the set of well-established and agreed-upon formal and functional distinctions that have proven useful in the organization of linguistic grammars, and that are used in the majority of reference grammars of the world’s languages. This framework is clearly and concretely specified in the accepted best norms for grammar-writing as demanded by the professional requirements of linguistic typologists. It can also readily be enhanced by the use of relevant grammatical formalisms, where appropriate. This is the framework to be applied by CI and the two PhDs in Strand 1, and also in the comparative work of Strand 2 (involving the three Partner Investigators).

The framework to be used for the analysis of language contact, maintenance, and change is a biased transmission framework, developed in a series of publications by the CI over the last 10 years (Enfield 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014). This interdisciplinary framework draws on (a) the sociology of innovation diffusion (Rogers 2003), (b) the sociolinguistics of social networks (Milroy 1980, Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985, Ross 1997, Nettle 1999), and (c) the natural science of cultural evolution (Sperber 2006, Boyd and Richerson 2005). The framework is grounded in a commitment to being maximally explicit about the causal processes of social diffusion of linguistic and other cultural forms. The framework is built upon two main conceptual components:

Interlocking causal frames (Enfield 2013, 2014): There are multiple frames or ‘time-scales’ at which social change in language and ethnic relations can be causally affected. Most approaches work with one or two of these frames. The framework to be used in this project insists on simultaneous attention to all of these frames, with special attention to the links between them. The framework recognizes six such frames (Enfield 2014 gives the details): Microgenetic (invoking cognitive and motoric processes involved in producing and comprehending language), Ontogenetic (invoking lifespan processes by which people, usually as children, acquire linguistic knowledge and skills), Phylogenetic (invoking ways in which the requisite cognitive capacities have evolved in our species), Enchronic (invoking the sequential interlocking of social actions in linguistic clothing), Diachronic (invoking historical change, conducted socially in human populations), and Synchronic (any approach that does not explicitly invoke notions of process, such as language description).

Transmission biases (Enfield 2008, 2014): A socially- and cognitively-grounded theory of the diffusion of innovations in human populations provides the causal basis for how it is that social conventions (such as the ethnographic and linguistic facts that we observe) are the way they are. The causal machinery for diffusion of types of behavior (including language) within a society is a forward-feeding chain with four linked loci: perception of a bit of behaviour, representation of that bit of behaviour, subsequent production of that bit of behaviour, and instantiation of some trace of the behavior (leading to perception by others, and feeding into the process anew). Each locus is a site where the chain of diffusion may be broken or reinforced: such breaks and reinforcements come from biases that may operate on each locus (Enfield 2014 gives the details). There are many such biases: some are cognitive (e.g., if a linguistic construction is easier to learn, it will diffuse better); some are social (e.g., if a more prestigious group of people make an innovation, it is more likely to be copied). While many of these biases are well known, this framework is the first that strives to build and test an exhaustive theoretical account of the biases on social transmission in the context of language contact and its historical effects.

It is noted that there are current approaches working with related ideas using computational methods such as agent-based modeling and bioinformatics, and applying the concepts of evolutionary biology (e.g., Kirby et al 2008, Dunn et al 2011). The present proposal is intended to have potential for a direct interface with those lines of research, as the development of the causal account proposed here is carried out at a conceptual level, and is independent from the specific methods used. While the application of bioinformatic methods is beyond the scope of this project, the framework and findings will ideally lead to close exchange with those approaches.