Extensions of diachronic typology: mechanisms of change as the true universals
Joan Bybee, University of New Mexico

The facet of Joseph Greenberg's work that has had the greatest influence on my thinking and work is his widespread deployment of the method that has come to called diachronic typology. By comparing languages, both related and unrelated, Greenberg came to the conclusion that languages follow certain very similar paths of change in the development of their subsystems, e.g. in the development of determiners and gender markers (Greenberg 1978), and that both similarities and differences among languages could be understood in terms of where a language was situated on such a path of change. Subsequent work by Givon (1979) and others (myself included, Bybee, Perkins and Pagliuca 1994) has revealed a number of such paths, especially in the domain of grammaticization (the development of grammatical morphemes out of lexical ones). Work on grammaticization, for example, in the domain of tense and aspect makes it clear that universal paths of change allow much stronger statements of universals than one can formulate on the synchronic level. In other words, the way languages change is very constrained, but it can produce a multitude of distinct states. To me this has suggested that the true universals of language are the mechanisms by which languages change. In the context of grammaticization, mechanisms of semantic and pragmatic change have been identified, including generalization, and pragmatic strengthening; phonological change in grammaticization is characterized by reduction and fusion as processing units are automatized; grammatical change can also be characterized as reduction and fusion of constituent units. Some work on paths of change and their underlying mechanisms has also been attempted for phonological change, but here the much of the work seems to still be in the future. However, the prospects are bright, as phonological change also seems to follow well-determined paths. Syntactic change is usually tied up with grammaticization, yet there is still work to be done on the mechanisms by which syntactic change is implemented. Once we have identified the paths of change and the mechanisms behind them, not only will we have a better understanding of individual languages, but we will also have a fuller picture of, and indeed an explanation for, the nature of grammar.


Sources Cited:

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. 1994. The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Givón, T. 1979. On understanding grammar. New York: Academic Press.
Greenberg, Joseph. 1978. How does a language acquire gender markers.
In Greenberg, J., C. Ferguson, and E. Moravcsik, (eds). Universals of human language, Vol. III, 47-82. Stanford: Stanford University Press.