Rethinking Core and Margin in Language (BLS plenary abstract)

Looking forward to the 44th Berkeley Linguistics Society conference next week — loads of interesting talks on the program. Here’s the abstract for my plenary talk (Saturday Feb 10, 10AM in Dwinelle).

Rethinking Core and Margin in Language

Ideas about what is core and what is marginal are commonplace in linguistics. They serve to canalise research efforts and may suggest valuable questions to pursue. But as methods and theories evolve and language charts its own meandering course around our preconceptions, it is sometimes useful to take a step back and recalibrate. I start by distinguishing rara and marginalia. Rara are typologically exceptional phenomena that illustrate the fringes of linguistic diversity. Marginalia are common phenomena that many linguists think can be ignored without harm to linguistic inquiry. Crucially, rara can be objectively identified, whereas marginalia are more subjective. What we consider marginal may depend on our data, methods, theoretical outlook, or our own language ideologies.

I illustrate these points with two topics that are traditionally seen as marginal: ideophones and interjections. In many languages, ideophones are a major word class on a par with verbs or adjectives. Yet they have rarely commanded the same linguistic or typological attention. Nonetheless, ideophones have played an important role in stress-testing theories of phonology and morphosyntax, and today they contribute to a renaissance of the study of iconicity and multimodality in natural language. Interjections are usually seen as instinctive cries hardly worth a mention except as scattered outposts along the boundary of language. If we study language in its primary ecology, a different picture emerges: words like ‘huh?’, ‘mm’ and ‘oh!’ occupy up to one fifth of our turns, and they appear optimally adapted to the task of streamlining interaction. These humble words may play a crucial role in providing the kind of robust error-tolerance that is a precondition for a complex and generative communication system like human language.

Why are languages the way they are? Why do most of our utterances combine multiple modes of representation? What makes complex cooperative communication possible? Ideophones and interjections —or more broadly, iconicity and interaction— provide opportunities to formulate new answers to these questions and more. Marginalia, then, are not obscure, exotic phenomena that can safely be left aside. They represent opportunities for innovation and invite us to keep pushing the edges of the science of language.

For more information, check out my recent papers.

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