3D-landcape, 3D-language?

Dec 27, 2011 by

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that languages of the Northeast Caucasus, such as Avar, Tzes and Tabasaran, are famous for their extremely rich case systems; most of their case distinctions are used to mark various aspects of location and direction. A question arises as to whether these fine distinctions in location and direction are related to the complex topography of the mountainous landscape that the speakers of these languages inhabit. This would be an example of geographic determinism: the physical geography of a location affecting the internal properties of a language spoken there. Except it does not work, as we shall see today.

But first, what sort of thinking may underlie such claims of geographic determinism? The Caucasus region is known for its complex mountainous landscape (see picture above and also the first five minutes of this video). Moreover, the region is also characterized by complex patterns of what Johanna Nichols of UC Berkeley calls “vertical bilingualism” where

“residents of highland villages generally know the language of a lower village, but not vice versa; languages of lowlands regions offering markets and seasonal employment may be known by residents of several higher levels.”

Perhaps the significance of the vertical dimension in both physical geography and the social organization of the place is what makes speakers of these languages more acutely aware of various types of location/direction and forces them to lexicalize locational concepts that speakers of other languages may not care about so much? Perhaps living in mountainous landscape is what induces the distinction between ‘The house is on (horizontal surface) the mountain’ and ‘The house is on (vertical surface) the mountain’: assuming the mountain in question is far away, the former is -ƛʼ-āz and the latter is -q-āz in Tsez. It is easy to see how living in a highly 3D world would pressure the speakers to lexicalize ‘from under’, which is expressed in Tsez by-ƛ-āy (if the location is close) and -ƛ-āz-ay (if the location is far).

But what about other languages with rich case systems? Are they too found in mountainous regions? An examination of the map below reveals that the answer is “yes”, but only in some cases. Basque is spoken in the Pyrenees, Hamtai in the mountainous interior of Papua New Guinea, and Epena Pedee is spoken in a mountainous region in Colombia. But so many other languages with rich systems of case marking and multiple lcation/direction distinctions are spoken in flat lowlands. Most notable of them are Finno-Ugric languages: Finnish, Estonian, Udmurt, Mordvin, Hungarian, all featuring 15-25 cases, many of them to mark location and direction. Other languages with rich case systems but spoken in flat lowlands include Toda (Dravidian; southern India), Kayardild (Pama-Nyungan; northern Australia), and Evenki (Tungusic; southeastern Siberia).

This is but one example of the failure of the geographic determinism to account for linguistic typology. In the next post we will examine another example concerning nasal vowels in Romance languages.

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