Sunday, September 22, 2013

Adposition borrowing at SLE 2013

The Societas Linguistica Europae's annual conference finished today. The plethora of parallel sessions forced me to miss a lot of potentially interesting talks, but here are some highlights from the workshop I was participating in: adposition borrowing. This workshop was organised around a generalisation proposed by Edith Moravcsik 25 years ago, which has held up remarkably well (better than probably any other structure-based generalisation proposed about language contact):
"A lexical item that is of the 'grammatical' type (which type includes at least conjunctions and adpositions) cannot be included in the set of properties borrowed from a language unless the rule that determines its linear order with respect to its head is also borrowed." (source)
Eitan Grossman presented a number of apparent counterexamples – in fact, he reported that fully one-third of his sample of languages with borrowed adpositions displayed counterexamples. His effort to systematically test the hypothesis is laudable. However, the results cannot be taken at face value. Many examples, on closer examination, turn out to be amenable to one of three alternative explanations:
  1. The adposition was originally borrowed as a preposition, and turned into a postposition in the course of a more general typological realignment of the language. (This applies to Sri Lanka Malay dative nang, ultimately from a Javanese preposition; Authier et al. presented a new example, an apudlocative preposition possibly borrowed from Tatic into Georgian: Tatic (b)-tan N > old Georgian tan-a N > modern Georgian N-tan.)
  2. The source language order is not necessarily as postulated. (Thus the Khorasan Turkish postposition is assumed to be from Persian, in which it is a preposition, but could also derive from neighbouring Mazanderani, in which it is a postposition.)
  3. The "adposition" is also used without a complement in the source language (eg as a noun or adverb), and hence was not necessarily borrowed as an adposition. (This applies, for instance, to the Brahui postposition savā "without", connected at some remove to Persian سوا sevā "separate, other", or to the Manambu postposition wantaim "with", from Tok Pisin wantaim "together (adv.) / with (prep.)". In some cases the adverb is unambiguously the source, for instance Turkish raǧmen "despite", from the Arabic adverb raghman رغما rather than the preposition raghma رغم.)
1 and 2 merely illustrate the need for in-depth historical linguistic investigation of each case, which should go without saying. 3, however, is more interesting in principle. If an adposition can readily occur as a noun or adverb, are we justified in classing it as "of the 'grammatical' type"? The answer I gave in my presentation, before discussing the borrowing of adpositions in Northern Songhay, was: no. Not all adpositions are functional, as various authors have been pointing out since at least 1990, and we should not expect the generalisation to apply to lexical adpositions. In fact, we need at least a three-way distinction (cp. Littlefield 2005): purely functional adpositions such as of, in, to; purely lexical items used in complex adpositions such as front, back, middle (Svenonius's (2010) "axial parts"); and mixed items which simultaneously express the meanings of both a nominal/adverbial stem and a functional adposition governing it, such as beside (by the side of), inside (on the inside of). Functional adpositions should be subject to Moravcsik's generalisation; mixed items should be able to go both ways; and lexical items should be subject to the recipient language grammar alone. This proposal appears to eliminate all the few genuine exceptions to Moravcsik's generalisation so far proposed; however, it remains to be seen whether this criterion can be defined unambiguously for all adpositions in all languages.

Petros Karatsareas gave a nice summary of the situation in Cappadocian Greek (cf. Dawkins 1916), which has taken advantage of Greek's word order flexibility to move a long way towards developing postpositions; relational nouns which in Medieval Greek normally preceded their complement came to obligatorily follow it, yielding circumpositions (governing the genitive) whose prepositional component then became optional. This strategy was in turn used for borrowing Turkish adpositions.

Riho Grünthal pointed out the striking rarity of borrowed prepositions on Finno-Ugric, even in languages such as Finnish or Saami that (as a result of contact) have developed prepositions. This seems to confirm a point that I had also made in regard to Northern Songhay: that it's much easier to borrow adpositions when they have the same syntax in the source and target languages. He did find one or two cases, though, notably Livonian pa, from Latvian. Brigitte Pakendorf showed that Even borrows a fair number of Yakut postpositions (with varying degrees of acceptance among speakers), but no Russian prepositions, which at first sight seems to confirm the role of congruence even more. However, it's also true that Yakut has influenced Even much longer than Russian has.

Edith Moravcsik herself finally gave a summing-up address, in the form of an outline of relevant factors that need to be considered in the typology of adposition/case marker borrowing, with allusions to the talks given; she didn't focus particularly on her original generalisation, and she gave the impression of seeing it as being only statistically true in light of the proposed counterexamples.

I won't go into detail on the contributions that did not directly address Moravcsik's generalisation here, since this is already getting too long for a blog post, but some were also very interesting. Notably, Bakker and Hekking revealed that, whereas Quechua and Guarani make little use of Spanish adpositions, Otomí has massively adopted them – probably because Otomí, unlike the other two, had no morphemes serving such a function before contact, leaving it to context.

Much work remains to be done on the topic. Do you know any prepositions that have been borrowed as postpositions, or vice versa?


Eitan Grossman said...

Hi Lameen,

Thanks for your report! I thought it was a pretty good workshop, all in all! (In any event, I had a good time and found it interesting.)

At any rate, it definitely looks like there is a lot more work to be done.

I agree that some examples can be analyzed in other ways, and of course you're right that one has to be careful about the nature of the element in the source language. But there a few other things to be said - for one thing, there are a few more counterexamples that I didn't go into. For another, the very borrowing of lexical items with 'axial part' semantics is interesting in its own right, especially when such items aren't typically used with their basic lexical meaning in the recipient language.

In general, I would be surprised if Moravcsik's generalization were an absolute universal, though, because there seem to be such vanishingly few real absolute universals - note the article genre of "Another universal bites the dust" - so I would be really floored if the one real absolute universal turned out to be a universal of borrowing, which is so subject to sociolinguistic and discourse factors. But who knows, this obviously bears further scrutiny.

Incidentally, really 'functional' adpositions are very rarely borrowed in general - again, it's not that it doesn't happen, it's just a small subset of the subset of languages that have borrowed adpositions - and when it does, it's often between languages with the same linear order, so the number of cases in which this generalization can be evaluated is still relatively small. But it would be good if this workshop made people dig around more.

I would add to your report that some issues outside of linear order were raised that were barely touched upon, and are absolutely fascinating in their own right. (Incidentally, the workshop was organized around the general theme of adposition borrowing, and not Moravcsik's universal, I think that this is just what particularly interested you and me.)

For example, no one really went near the question of a borrowability hierarchy based on semantics, which Matras and Elsik have discussed in such detail and depth based on a huge sample of Romani languages.

Also, the glove that Stephane Polis threw down, regarding what happens with the polysemy of adpositions when borrowed and how this reflects on semantic contiguity hypotheses- this seems like a really promising question.

Third, some generalizations about the relative borrowability of adpositions vis-a-vis other things, like conjunctions, have been proposed for particular contact situations (e.g., Stolz's work on Spanish contact around the Pacific rim), and it would be interesting to see what empirical validity these end up having.

See you around!


John Cowan said...

Huddleston & Pullum's view of English, which I think is pretty compelling, is that there is no hard distinction in the language between prepositions and adverbs anyway. There is this class of words that is mildly open (not nearly as open as verbs, much more open than pronouns), and while some require complements, some disallow complements, and most can appear with or without a complement.

David Marjanović said...

this is already getting too long for a blog post

...Uh, no.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Eitan: Thanks for your comment! In principle, any generalisation can be violated simply because language can be brought under conscious control. I could decide to borrow a Japanese postposition as a preposition and start saying "kara Paris" instead of "from Paris" tomorrow specifically to disprove this generalisation, and if I were cool enough it might even catch on. I would very much doubt that such a thing would happen without conscious manipulation, though, just as schoolkids happily indulge in backwards-speech but no historical change ever systematically reverses the phoneme order of all words. As for those other counterexamples, I look forward to hearing about them!

It's an important point that functional adpositions are rarely borrowed, and it fits rather well with Myers-Scotton's model of codeswitching.

JC: As I recall, their position was that some but not all "adverbs" are intransitive adpositions (eg "north"), but they do maintain a distinction between those and "proper" adverbs like the -ly class.

DM: Well, "longer than I had time for at the moment of posting" might have been more accurate...