April 3, 2016

Guest speaker: Alan Dench (University of Western Australia)

We are delighted to welcome Alan Dench to our department from the the University of Western Australia. A renowned fieldworker, Alan has worked on the syntax, morphology, phonology, and historical reconstruction of a range of mostly Pama-Nyungan languages (found among indigenous populations of Australia). He was extensively involved in the documentation of Martuthunira before its last speaker passed away in 1995. Cross-linguistic topics of interest to him include case-marking, pronouns, and kinship terms.

His talk for our department - "Reconstructing degrammaticalization: The Nyamal and Ngarla 3sgDAT pronoun" - will be taking place at 4:10 PM on Wednesday, April 6 in SS 2106. A reception will follow in the department lounge.

The paper proposes the development of a free pronoun form from what was originally bound material. It is suggested that the 3sgDAT pronoun, para, in two languages of the Pilbara region of Western Australia - Ngarla and Nyamal - has its origin in a bound pronominal element, ‑ra, with a much wider distribution in western Pama-Nyungan languages. The development of the free form para fills a gap in an innovated 3sg paradigm and compensates for the partial loss of non-subject bound pronominal forms in the two languages.

Put in these simple terms, the account proposed is quite the opposite of that which might ordinarily be expected in a comparative reconstruction. Faced with the question of reconstructing a form for a protolanguage that in one set of daughter languages surfaces as a free pronoun and in another set of daughters surfaces as a bound form, we would normally choose to reconstruct the paradigm of free pronoun forms and argue that these forms became bound in some subset of languages through a process of grammaticalization. The alternative diachronic analysis proposed here involves the reconstruction of ‘degrammaticalization’ and adds to what is still a relatively small inventory of (attested and accepted) examples of degrammaticalization described in the literature.

The analysis thus raises an interesting methodological question: "As rare as degrammaticalization may be as a phenomenon, are there conditions under which we may be licensed to reconstruct degrammaticalization?"

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