Laufende Projekte

Orthographic relativity: Comparing the relation between literacy and normativity across writing systems and literate cultures


Writing has shaped humankind in fundamental social, cognitive, and linguistic ways, having developed into such a central and versatile tool in daily routines that in literate communities, life without it appears almost unthinkable. As a research subject, however, writing had long been relegated to the margins of modern linguistics by leading paradigms of the field (such as structuralism) as spoken language was declared the primary – and often only ‘worthy’ – subject of investigation. With the international advent of an interdisciplinary grapholinguistics, this situation is slowly changing and questions of writing and literacy are being given their due. In this context, especially the relation between structural and sociolinguistic aspects remains understudied although their intersection lays bare a phenomenon at the core of modern societies: linguistic normativity. It is the focus of this project, whose main goal is to explore the influence that literacy (especially orthographically curtailed forms of it) exerts on structural, pragmatic, and metapragmatic manifestations of linguistic normativity. This entails research questions such as: How does the structure of languages (and specifically their writing systems) give rise to variation and foster (or require) certain regulation (especially in the form of orthographic standardization)? In a next step, how are the languages and their writing systems socio-politically regulated? How does normativity affect users’ literacy practices, and could it even be inherent to them? At a metalevel, how do users think and communicate about these practices and normativity in particular, and to what degree are their attitudes and beliefs shaped by normativity, the respective writing system that they use, as well as the literate culture they were socialized in?

Underlying these questions is the assumption that the diverse writing systems we have come to use influence our (different) perceptions of language, a phenomenon that is referred to as graphic relativity. In the proposed project, and following the mentioned questions, a specific facet of graphic relativity at the interface of structural linguistics and sociolinguistics is systematically investigated: How do the diverse structures of different writing systems influence – or even constitute – normative categories that their users employ in conceptualizing and evaluating as ‘(in)correct’ or ‘(in)appropriate’ not only literacy practices but possibly language and communicative practices in general (i.e., also spoken and signed ones)? What is the nature of these normative categories and how do they differ in typologically distinct writing systems as well as cross-culturally? This subtype of graphic relativity can be termed orthographic relativity.

To achieve an informative comparison, three writing systems and associated literate cultures have been selected: German, Japanese and Norwegian. Structurally, the writing systems of German and Norwegian are alphabets (i.e., segmental phonographic systems), while Japanese represents a complex mixture of mainly syllabographic (i.e., non-segmental phonographic) and morphographic components. Thus, through the choice of these systems, three types of typologically distinct graphematic relations (phonemic, syllabic, and morphemic) are included and tested for how they affect normative categories. Furthermore, while German and Norwegian use Roman script (with respective modifications), Japanese uses a mixture of kana, Chinese-derived kanji, and Roman script romaji; these scriptural differences – and with them, material aspects of writing – will also be considered. Sociolinguistically, the choice of the three literate cultures is motivated by the presence of different features that are expected to shape how normativity is dealt with: pluricentricity (in the case of German), diglossia (in the case of Norwegian but also German), the influence of other writing systems (in the case of Japanese), unevenly spread (ortho)graphic knowledge due to the complexity of the writing system (also in Japanese), to name only a few. Thus, while the sociolinguistic conditions surrounding the selected writing systems and their embedding in literate cultures will not cover all possible situations, they provide a first overview of reoccurring general constellations surrounding literacy.

The project is divided into two parts. In the (1) theoretical part, the focus is, firstly, on a (1a) structural analysis of the selected writing systems and, secondly, on a characterization of (1b) sociolinguistic conditions surrounding literacy – especially orthographic regulation – in the associated literate cultures. The goal of this theoretical part is to carve out the structural prerequisites for orthographic standardization and to complement and merge these with sociolinguistic perspectives to attain a multidimensional picture of different types of orthographic regulation. This serves as a basis for the (2) empirical part, in which two methods are adopted to study how literacy affects and is affected by linguistic normativity. For metapragmatic aspects, (2a) sociolinguistic language-biographical interviews will be conducted with the aim of eliciting ideologies – including attitudes and beliefs – regarding literacy, normativity, and their interaction. Complementary online (2b) discourse analyses will be carried out to examine how different aspects of linguistic normativity are negotiated in varying contexts and through diverse scribal practices, thus covering both pragmatic and metapragmatic aspects.

In sum, the multiperspective comparative approach adopted in this project will shed light on the conditions and discourses surrounding both literacy and normativity as two pillars of society. It is expected that its findings can be operationalized to solve practical problems of socio-political relevance. Specifically, since the comparative analysis of the literate public’s ideologies and attitudes towards normativity and orthography elucidate the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of orthography as a central cornerstone of language policy, insight is provided into both the perceived and real effects of orthographic regulation; this is highly valuable, for example, for the planning and implementation of future orthography (or in general language) reforms that in the past have often fueled controversy.

Projektleitung: Dr. Dimitrios Meletis, BA BA MA MA
Finanzierung: ÖAW, APART-GSK-Programm
Laufzeit: September 2023 – laufend

Implicational hierarchies in clausal complementation


A common feature of languages from diverse families is the expression of thoughts, beliefs, utterances, claims, conjectures, wishes, and many other concepts via clausal subordination—verbs corresponding to these concepts (e.g., believe, say, think, want) combine with a dependent subordinate clauses such as embedded finite clauses, infinitives, or others. Subordination involves construing a dependent state of affairs in relation to the state of affairs expressed by the main clause, and complementation is a particular type of subordination (other types are adverbial or relative sentences) where the dependent clause is an argument of a predicate. Languages exhibit a variety of different types of complementation, which can be divided into different classes based on their semantic properties (such as interrogative, propositional attitude, modal) and/or their morphosyntactic properties (such as finite, non-finite, subjunctive, nominalization, and others). A striking observation that has been made in many works on complementation is that there is a dependency between the meaning of a complementation configuration and its morphosyntactic coding—changing one often also results in a change of the other.

One of the core hypotheses of the project is that the relation between a complement clause and the matrix verb is bi-directional in that they may influence each other. This synthesis approach can be couched in a free merge system, where verb-complement configurations are computed freely in syntax, and their compatibility is determined at the output (when syntax feeds into the interfaces). The bi-directionality of the synthesis model allows for mutual influences, and the result is determined jointly by both components of the complementation configuration—a matrix verb can impose properties on the embedded clause, but properties of an embedded clause can also affect the matrix predicate. An area where the complement’s influence on the matrix predicate is observable particularly well is alternating verbs such as tell, forget, or know. In English, as in many other languages, these verbs occur in two frames: an infinitival construction, The bear forgot to eat the cookies, or a finite construction, The bear forgot that it ate the cookies. The meanings of the two configurations, however, show a clear difference: the infinitival construction is implicative and entails that the bear did not eat the cookies, whereas the finite construction is factive and means that it did eat them. Since factive verbs do not generally require finite complements, it is the interaction of the matrix verb and the morphosyntactic composition of the complement clause that determines the meaning of a complementation configuration.

While the morphosyntactic coding of complement clauses shows significant variation across languages, typological studies have shown that there is nevertheless a systematicity to the distribution which points to an abstract universal interaction of semantic and morphosyntactic properties, and more generally, a possibly universal organization of complementation. The broad goal of this project is to investigate the nature and distribution of, and regularities among the dependencies found between the meaning and the morphosyntactic coding of complementation configurations cross-linguistically.

The starting point is the typological observation that complementation configurations are ranked according to their semantic properties (see in particular Givón 1980), forming an implicational complementation hierarchy (ICH). The implicational nature can be observed in the distribution of syntactic or morphological distinctions, which, if present in a language, operate in a directional manner along the hierarchy leading to contingent predictions about adjacent configurations (such as ‘if a type of complement has property X, all complement types to its right/left also have property X’). Following such approaches, the overarching typological hypothesis of the project is thus that there is a possibly universal implicational complementation hierarchy  which is defined semantically and detectable through a diverse set of morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties.

Although a variety of semantic classifications can be found, a broad grouping reflected in most typologies is what can be defined as Propositions > Situations > Events. The most basic class (Events) involves complements expressing bare eventualities; the second class (Situations) is attained by adding time and world parameters to an Event; and the most complex class (Propositions) results from anchoring a Situation to an utterance or embedding context. Building on these concepts, a complementation hierarchy arises which shows increasing semantic complexity and is implicational in that lower classes are contained in higher classes. In contrast to matrix sentences, complement clauses do not have to be built up to the final stage, but may constitute smaller structures, of various sizes, subject to certain restrictions (including the requirement that the larger constituents must contain the smaller ones). This renders the implicational hierarchy that holds among Propositions > Situations > Events. As a result, the three classes align according to their degree of independence (for example, (in)dependent time or subject interpretations), transparency (the possibility of cross-clausal operations) and integration (incorporation or restructuring). Languages use different strategies to code the three classes, including gerunds, participles, subjunctives, nominalizations, independent subjects, or different complementizers. Since the implicational hierarchy is an abstract, underlying scale, the distribution of language-specific morphosyntactic coding is constrained by the ICH rather than defining it.

The project puts forward and tests hypotheses for defining the ICH, as well as a model that derives the ranking and implicational relations. The ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive theory of complementation, pursuing research questions such as: Are the factors determining the semantic ranking of the ICH functional, grammatical or both? What specific properties yield the semantic ranking of the ICH? How do the ordering and implicational nature of the ICH arise? What syntactic configurations do the semantic ICH categories correspond to? What is the interaction between syntax and semantics in complementation? How can the ICH be situated in different clause structure models? What is the relation between the matrix predicate and the embedded clause? How is the mapping between the ICH and morphosyntactic properties established? Which morphosyntactic and semantic effects show sensitivity to the ICH cross-linguistically?

The project follows the framework of formal generative typology (Baker 2009, Baker and McCloskey 2007), which allows combining tools from both generative grammar and typology. While we focus on providing a grammatical-structural analysis of complementation, the results are compared to typological and functional approaches, and the answers to the general questions should have relevance for a range of approaches to complementation as well as the general relation between (morpho-)syntactic coding and semantics.

Projektleitung: Mag. Susanne Wurmbrand, PhD
Projektmitarbeiter: Iva Kovač, Magdalena Lohninger, BA MA
Laufzeit: November 2020 – laufend

The Characters that shaped the Silk Road

A Database and Digital Paleography of Tarim Brahmi

From the 2nd century CE on, Buddhist communities and monasteries developed along the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road in and around the Tarim Basin in today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. These were centers of writing, copying, translating, and transmitting texts similar to the monasteries in medieval Europe.

The old Indo-European languages Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka were the major languages of the monasteries in the Tarim Basin. The most important writing system these languages were written in was a special Central Asian variety of the Indian Brahmi script. The earliest material written in this Tarim Brahmi is among the oldest attested Buddhist texts. Most of the material written in Tarim Brahmi is scattered over different editions and not digitally searchable.

It is the goal of the project to make all texts written in Tarim Brahmi available to paleographic investigation in an online database.

The project centers on the question of who wrote what, when, where, and how. These classical issues of paleography so far can only be applied to a small portion of the material or have only been addressed rudimentarily.

The project aims at answering these questions by means of a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. The database will combine linguistic, philological, and paleographic data. It will directly link the texts with their digital images. This will make it possible to search for specific characters, ligatures, and words in the entire corpus. Additionally, the quantifiable features of all characters, ligatures, and words will be extracted and compared using software tools. This will, for the first time, make it possible to identify scribes, scribal schools, as well as regional and diachronic variants of Tarim Brahmi.

Almost all texts of the languages written in Tarim Brahmi are in a fragmentary state. Therefore, one of the most important results of the project will be that the countless smaller fragments will be able to be joined together based on objective paleographic criteria. The new texts, contexts, and word forms will lead to new linguistic and philological insights for Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka.

Since the paleography will also shed light on the dating and localization of texts it will provide new perspectives on regional, social, and diachronic layers of the languages and texts. This will in turn elucidate the relationship between languages and texts, which will provide insights into the origin and evolution of literacy along the Silk Road and have important consequences for the understanding of the transmission of Buddhism in Central Asia and, from there, to China.

Projektleitung: Hannes A. Fellner
Bernhard Koller, Martin Braun
Kollaboration: Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities (ACDH), Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (ÖAW)
Finanzierung: FWF, START Programm
Laufzeit: Februar 2018 – laufend