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«Dynamic typology and vernacular universals J.K. Chambers Abstract Vernacular universals arise in the context of sociolinguistic dialectology as ...»

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Dynamic typology and vernacular universals

J.K. Chambers


Vernacular universals arise in the context of sociolinguistic dialectology as

generalizations about intralinguistic variation, and their universal status is

emerging from analyses of putative crosslinguistic counterparts. The external

factors that underlie them have distinctive social and functional aspects. I

exemplify them by examining one of them, default singulars, a specific type of

copula nonconcord. In English, default singulars occur as invariant was (as in They was too sick to travel). Socially, default singulars appear to develop naturally in the absence of contact models, as dramatically illustrated by Schreier’s work (2002) on Tristan da Cunha. Functionally, they appear to result from stripping away inflectional redundancies, especially when they involve complex look-up mechanisms. Vernacular universals, unlike UG-based generalizations, are identified partly in terms of their social patterning, in so far as there are regularities in the way they are socially embedded, and this added dimension may provide a concrete basis for coming to grips with them.

1. Introduction 8. Worldliness and speech

2. Vernacular universals 9. Primitive and learned features

3. Dynamic typology 10. Nonconcord as a “natural

4. Default singulars tendency”

5. Linguistic constraints 11. Grammatical constraints

6. Finding the baseline 12. Variationist typology

7. Contact and language change

1. Introduction At the dawn of the Chomskyan era, many people believed that progress in linguistics would come from the discovery of principles that allowed generalizations across language boundaries. Thus Roman Jakobson said, “We all seem to agree that linguistics is passing from the bare study of variegated languages and language families, through systematic TYPOLOGICAL research and gradual INTEGRATION, to become a thoroughly universal science of language” (Jakobson 1963: 275). That historical thrust 128 J.K. Chambers was waylaid, however, by the rise of Chomskyan syntax into the mainstream in the 1960s, and by the parallel rise of sociolinguistics starting at the same time and reaching mainstream status soon after.

Neither theoretical syntax nor sociolinguistic variation studies made explicit claims about possible tie-ins with language typology. Chomsky’s goals were implicitly typological, to the extent that they were oriented toward universal grammar. The typological void remains, for that school, an accidental gap. Sociolinguists, for their part, have been preoccupied with discovering the distribution of types and tokens in real communities, and only recently have begun to look beyond their own borders. As sociolinguistics becomes less restricted to local events, it becomes comparative and, as the comparative aspect gains weight, cross-linguistic generalizations not only become possible but inevitable. Those generalizations are typological, and, as I show below, have universal implications.

2. Vernacular universals Sociolinguists have amassed copious evidence in the past 35 years for a surprising conclusion: a small number of phonological and grammatical processes recur in vernaculars wherever they are spoken. This conclusion follows from the observation that, no matter where in the world the vernaculars are spoken – Newfoundland, Harlem, Ocracoke, Ballymacarrett, Tyneside, Buckie, the Fens, the Falklands, inner-city Sydney – these features inevitably occur.

Their ubiquity has one of two possible explanations. Either the features were diffused there by the founders of the dialect, or they developed there independently as natural structural linguistic developments. As I have shown at greater length elsewhere (Chambers 2003: 266–270), the diffusionist explanation is implausible because of geographic spread. It is also implausible linguistically, because these features occur not only in working-class and rural vernaculars but also in child language, pidgins, creoles and interlanguage varieties. Therefore, they appear to be natural outgrowths, so to speak, of the language faculty, that is, the species-specific bioprogram that allows (indeed, requires) normal human beings to become homo loquens.

I have characterized these recurring natural processes as “vernacular roots” (Chambers 2003: 266–270). The best candidates, based on their Dynamic typology and vernacular universals 129 recurrence, are listed below with alternative names and a simple English


(ng) or alveolar substitution in final unstressed -ing, as in walkin’, – talkin’ and runnin’.

(CC) or morpheme-final consonant cluster simplification, as in pos’ – office, han’ful.

final obstruent devoicing, as in hundret (for hundred), cubbert (for – cupboard) conjugation regularization, or leveling of irregular verb forms, as in – Yesterday John seen the eclipse and Mary heared the good news.

default singulars, or subject-verb nonconcord, as in They was the last – ones.

multiple negation, or negative concord, as in He didn’t see nothing.

– copula absence, or copula deletion, as in She smart or We going as – soon as possible.

Linguistically, these processes include some phonological ones (the first three) and some grammatical ones (the other four). That raises the ultimate challenge of bringing them together in a unified theory, though that may be a premature concern until the framework is better understood. Elsewhere, I have discussed morpheme-final consonant cluster simplification, symbolized (CC), and conjugation regularization (Chambers 2003: 258– 265), final obstruent devoicing (Chambers 2000), and multiple negation (Chambers 2001) in detail and explored some of their implications as vernacular roots. In this article, I will deal mainly with default singulars.

3. Dynamic typology

I have listed the vernacular universals with their English names and illustrated them with English examples. This is misleading. In so far as these processes arise naturally in pidgins, child language, vernaculars, and elsewhere, they are primitive features, not learned. As such, they belong to the language faculty, the innate set of rules and representations that are the natural inheritance of every human being. They cannot be merely English.

They must have counterparts in the other languages of the world that are demonstrably the outgrowths of the same rules and representations in the bioprogram.

130 J.K. Chambers Here, then, is where sociolinguistics intersects with typology. Luckily, just as variation studies have evolved since Jakobson’s time, so have typological studies. Vernacular universals provide a potential resource for typologists working within the dynamic framework characterized by Kortmann (1997: 13): “typology does not stop at accounting for (limits of) variation across languages, but tries to give a unified account of intralinguistic variation, crosslinguistic variation, and variation over time as essentially the same external factors are held to underlie all three types of variation”. Like Kortmann, my goal is to make some progress toward Croft’s “dynamic paradigm, in which the study of all types of linguistic variation – cross-linguistic (typology), intralinguistic (sociolinguistics and language acquisition) and diachronic (historical linguistics) – are unified” (Croft 1990: 258–259).

Vernacular universals arise in the context of sociolinguistic dialectology as generalizations about intralinguistic variation (so far mainly from English dialects) but their universal status is emerging from analyses of putative crosslinguistic counterparts. The factors that underlie them have distinct cognitive and functional aspects. Socially, the vernacular universals appear to fall into well-defined patterns in the acrolect-basilect hierarchy, but functionally there appear to be several disparate principles at work (from motor economy to cognitive overload). Unifying the functional principles into a few empirically defensible cognitive strategies may be too much to ask of any branch of linguistics at this time, important though it is to try.

Vernacular universals raise the same challenges for typological analysis as do UG-based generalizations. To establish a claim for universality, it is necessary to compare processes that occur in two or more languages. One challenge arises in finding (or developing) descriptions at comparable analytic depth in the two (or more) languages, and another arises from determining equivalence between crosslinguistic categories. Unlike grammar-based generalizations, however, vernacular universals are identified partly in terms of their social patterning, in so far as there are regularities in the way they are socially embedded, and this added dimension may provide a concrete basis for coming to grips with them.

I can make many of these points concrete by looking in some detail at the process of default singulars.

Dynamic typology and vernacular universals 131

4. Default singulars The grammatical phenomenon I am calling “default singulars” is exemplified in this sentence from Feagin’s research in Anniston, Alabama (1979: 202):

–  –  –

Here, the subject of the second clause, they (= three rats), is plural, but the verb form was is singular. In traditional grammar terms, the verb fails to agree with the subject in number. Constructions like these are not acceptable in standard English dialects anywhere in the world except in highly restricted grammatical environments (discussed below). All standard dialects require number concord between subject and verb be. The nonconcord pattern in which was occurs with all subjects, though nonstandard, occurs globally in vernacular dialects in various parts of the world. Britain (2002: 17) identifies this as “the first and most common” of “two broad dominant patterns of past be across varieties of English,”

defined as follows:

Vernacular Pattern 1: WAS occurs variably for standard WERE throughout the paradigm, both affirmative and negative.

Its global distribution is evident from the fact that it is reported in Sydney, Australia (Eisikovits 1991), Buckie, Scotland, Nova Scotia, Samaná (all Tagliamonte and Smith 2000), all varieties of African-American English, and many other vernaculars.

There is a second pattern identified by Britain (2002: 19) as follows:

Vernacular Pattern 2: WAS occurs variably for standard WERE in affirmatives, and WEREN’T in negatives.

Whereas in Pattern 1, the negated verb remains singular – the boys was interested, but the girls wasn’t – in the second pattern the verb form changes when it is negated – the boys was interested, but the girls weren’t.

It also occurs with singular subjects when the verb is negated, as in Johnny weren’t interested at all. This pattern also has fairly wide distribution in English vernaculars, being reported in North Carolina varieties (Ocracoke, Lumbee, etc., in Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1994; Wolfram and Sellers 132 J.K. Chambers 1999), Reading (Cheshire 1989), and the Fens (Britain 2002); for a Britainwide survey, see Anderwald (2002). It remains to be seen whether its distribution is global.

What I call “default singular” explicitly refers to Vernacular Pattern 1.

That is, it is purposely intended to specify the co-occurrence of the unmarked verb form (the singular in standard dialects) with all subjects, regardless of number. There is ample evidence that it is the basic vernacular system, with was and wasn’t in all persons and numbers. Clearly, Vernacular Pattern 2, with was in affirmative and weren’t in negative, adds a grammatical complication by, in effect, requiring the bound suppletive form were – when the negative clitic occurs. It represents movement in the direction of a concord system, and in fact imports the standard plural concord form (were) to do so. It appears to be at least one step removed from the basilect. Wolfram and Sellers (1999) add evidence from diffusion to arrive at the same conclusion. They note that “leveling to was [i.e., Vernacular Pattern 1] may occur as an independent innovation,” but Vernacular Pattern 2 is learned in the sense that “cases of leveling to were/n’t in the United States appear to be traceable to influence from British-based donor dialects” (1999: 109).

Vernacular Pattern 1 is simpler, and, by definition, more basic. If my assumption is correct, then eventually we should find evidence in some vernacular dialects for Pattern 2 developing out of Pattern 1. As we will see below, Schreier (2002) provides evidence for Vernacular Pattern 1 coming into being spontaneously in an isolated speech community. This is further evidence for its basilectal status.

5. Linguistic constraints

We now know that the nonstandard default singulars and the standard concord patterns are poles on a continuum. In between, there is a graded hierarchy in which concord occurs more frequently with certain types of subjects than others. Two of them are so well known as to have their own

names (Britain 2002: 19–20):

–  –  –

Northern Subject Rule (B below): WAS is more frequent after nonpronominal plural nouns (NPpl) than after pronouns.

So robust is the existential constraint (E) that it even intrudes into standard dialects, allowing nonconcord variants such as There’s too many McDonald’s in Helsinki alongside regular constructions like There’re too many. Nonconcord after expletive there is the only exception to invariant concord in standard dialects (and even such nonconcord variants are often inveighed against in usage guides, notwithstanding their frequency in conversation). The Northern Subject rule (B) is named for the English region where it appears to have become established as a rule-like process.

According to the Northern Subject Rule, plural nouns (as opposed to pronouns) prohibit or at least inhibit concord in some dialects.

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