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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI17: Language Typology and Cognition

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

The aim of the paper is to gain knowledge and understanding of the nature of structural variation across human language and its connection to human cognition. We will learn about language description and classification, systematic patterns of structure observed across languages, typological generalisations and language universals. We will also look at how different types of languages and structures are acquired and processed by their speakers and become familiar with empirical studies of acquisition and processing for a variety of languages with an emphasis on studies from non European languages. We will consider different theoretical views and explanations for typological generalisations and what might constrain the human capacity for language (functionalist, formal/Faculty of Language, domain general cognition). Students will be encouraged to develop a critical perspective and synthesize conceptual arguments and empirical evidence from linguistic and cognitive perspectives.

We will further consider how language typology might be constrained by acquisition and processing and how it might influence aspects of acquisition and processing. For example, how, in situations of multilingualism, the typological similarity between the languages involved can explain patterns of acquisition and processing; conversely, how acquisition and processing constraints might explain emerging features in languages in contact. Similarly, how the timing or order of acquisition of specific phenomena might vary across languages in first language acquisition contrasting with universal aspects of linguistic development. These empirical questions will be related to more foundational questions: what is a possible human language, what enables and what limits linguistic diversity.


Indicative topics

Part I: Language typology and variation in language acquisition and processing

Morpho-Syntactic typology

  • Greenberg’s universals; word order, acquisition and processing of disharmonic word orders
  • Subjects across languages; ergative and nominative alignment; acquisition and processing of dative and of ergative alignment; dative and ergative as ‘vulnerable’ cases in acquisition and processing.
  • Relative Clauses and Questions; Head internal RCs as a developmental pre-cursor of externally headed RCs. Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy and Subject and Object Relatives in acquisition and processing.
  • Finiteness and Tense-aspect-mood morphology: free vs. bound morphemes; acquisition and processing of verbal morphology; converb structures; isolating languages and radical drop.
  • Nominals: count/mass, classifiers, number marking, definiteness; L2 acquisition of a typologically dissimilar system. L2 transfer of count/mass features. Gender marking.
  • Interrogatives and negation.

Phonological typology

  • Markedness in typology and acquisition. Acquisition of grammatical tone; information structure.
  • Typology of sign languages.
  • Variation in sign languages; critical period and the acquisition of sign languages.

Semantic typology:

  • Lexical concepts typologically and in cognition. Conceptual transfer in L2.
  • Wh-phrases, pronouns and quantifiers.
  • Information Structure.

Language Typology and multilingualism

  • Typology, L1-L2 linguistic distance measures and cross-linguistic influence in L2.
  • Areal typology and multilingualism: areal effects, linguistic areas—vulnerable and stable features in multilingual speakers (L2, L1 attrition, heritage speakers).
  • Creoles and L2 acquisition; the distinctive properties of creoles; The Basic Variety in L2, morphosyntax in L2 grammars and creoles. Creole relativisers and the Interpretability Hypothesis.

Part II: Explanations and Theories

  • Unrestricted/absolute and implicational universals; the limits of variation; nativist vs. cultural evolution approaches.
  • Typological bootstrapping; first language acquisition of typologically diverse languages. Nativist vs. usage-based/cognitive views of acquisition.
  • Hierarchies of parameters; parameter setting in L1. Early and late phenomena in the acquisition of typologically diverse languages.
  • Parameter re-setting: L2 acquisition of word order, complex syntax and agreement morphology. Thinking for speaking.
Preparatory reading: 

Content will be added soon.

Teaching and learning: 

Content will be added soon.


Assessment will be by:

i) Take home: A critical review essay of 1200 words to be submitted in the second week of Lent.

ii) In person written exam (2.5hrs): one data question and one essay question

Course Contacts: 
Dora Alexopoulou