Population thinking and “areal linguistics”

Institut Jean-Nicod  -  1bis avenue de Lowendal  -  75007 Paris
Le Groupe NaSH (Naturalisme et Sciences Humaines) de l'Institut Nicod vous invite le mardi 28 février de 17h à 19h à l'Institut Nicod, 1bis avenue de Lowendal, 75007 Paris, France, RdC à droite (plan d'accès à http://www.institutnicod.org/acc.htm ; si vous n'avez pas les codes de l'immeuble, les demander à sperber@ehess.fr ou origgi@enst.fr) à une conférence (en anglais) de  Nick Enfield  (Language and Cognition Group, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, http://www.mpi.nl/Members/NickEnfield) Population thinking and “areal linguistics” Implications for language, culture, and cognition

This paper discusses new developments in linguists' understanding of language, as a result of research in "areal typology". The observation that neighboring languages tend to be structurally similar regardless of their "genealogical" relationship raises fundamental issues for the linguist's understanding of language and "languages". The paper looks at recent modifications to the standard "family tree" approach to languages, and proposes that this classical approach is a reasonable methodology but not a reasonable theory. The generally good fit of reality to the genealogical method is an artifact of "normal transmission" in language acquisition. Certain types of socio-historical situation (e.g. large-scale slavery) make it clear that a diffusional, "epidemiological" model is necessary for at least some cases. Ockham's principle of simplicity suggests it is worth seeing if this model can also handle the relatively neat situations like the history of Indo-European or Austronesian language families. 

The key is to apply population thinking to our understanding of linguistic structures and processes. Such thinking gives rise to a framework which recognizes four basic units of analysis: 1. linguistic items (words, constructions, etc.); 2. individual speakers and their mental representations (i.e. of individual linguistic items and of structured systems of such items); 3. actual communicative interactions among speakers; 4. populations of speakers in social association. ('Languages' are secondary at best as units with any causal role or analytic value.) By this conception of language, linguistic processes are necessarily played out in a 'micro-macro' nexus. That is, questions of individual linguistic cognition cannot be understood without considering interactions among individuals, and, in turn, emergent population level effects. And questions of higher level convention (properties of 'languages') cannot be understood without considering properties of individual cognition, as well as the actual occasions of linguistic interaction among individuals. Population thinking makes this explicit.  

I discuss consequences of this kind of understanding for questions in two disciplines closely related to linguistics. First, in cognitive science, a major controversy centers on the nature of linguistic categorization and semantic representation as located in the individual mind, notably on whether such representations are 'innate' or 'constructed'. Areal typology supports a view by which conceptual representations of linguistic categories are constructed based on evidence available almost exclusively in occasions of face-to-face interaction. This has predictions for the kinds of representations which will be constructed given the distinct types of interactional contexts associated with 'language contact' situations versus in-group social situations. Second, in much of sociology and social anthropology, there is a tension between the analytic reliance on macro notions such as 'a culture' or 'a society', on the one hand, and the rejection of social/cultural essentialism, on the other. The paradox can be worked out by adopting the kind of population thinking which areal typology demands. The trick is to see how individual cognitive representations and specific occasions of communicative interaction feed into the higher level aggregation of convention (as observed in 'languages'). The required conceptual framework is readily available in research in sociology on the diffusion of behavioral innovation.

Pour préparer cette réunion, on pourra lire: Nick Enfield «Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia» in Annual Review of Anthropology 2005. 34:181–206, disponible à


Gloria Origgi et Dan Sperber
  • le mardi 28 février 2006 à 17h

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