Minimality and linguistic variation

Starting date
October 1, 2017
Duration (months)
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Managers or local contacts
Alber Birgit

The goal of this project is to show that the key notion of minimal difference between languages can
receive a precise definition as minimal variation of core grammatical principles.
In historical language change as well as in dialectal variation languages often vary minimally. For
instance, the historical process of s-retraction in German, changing [s] to [ʃ] word-initially before
consonants (e.g. [ʃ]tein, 'stone'), has taken place in a stepwise fashion, involving always larger sets of
preconsonantal contexts:
(1) t1: sà ʃ before k
t2: k,p,t
t3: k,p,t,r
t4: ….
We hypothesize that minimal differences between stages of language change correspond to minimal
differences of typological properties in the sense of Alber&Prince 2015.
We verify this hypothesis creating a database of relevant microvariation patterns, modeling them
computationally and performing a typological analysis yielding patterns of minimal difference:
(i) The database of microvariation patterns (found in the literature and databases we have created
for previous projects) gives us a solid empirical base on which to test our hypothesis.
(ii) The computational model of microvariation patterns is created with the free software
component OTWorkplace. The formal typology thus generated is compared to the empirically
attested patterns.
(iii) We then submit the formal typology to a typological analysis, extracting its typological
properties, in the form of ranking conditions in an Optimality Theoretic Grammar. In s-retraction,
for instance, the typological properties distinguish between the various degrees to which languages
exhibit the phenomenon. Our hypothesis (to be verified on the microvariation database) is that
minimal variation between languages can be defined as minimal variation in property values.
This research project will have an important impact on the state of the art providing a solution to a
long-standing problem, the definition of minimal grammatical difference. Its originality and
innovativeness lies in the synergy of traditional, computational and theoretical methodologies

Project participants

Birgit Alber
Professor from another university


Research facilities