Areal typology, history, and a central Bhutanese language


In this talk, we will discuss an unusual cluster of word order restrictions that apply in Bumthang, a Tibeto-Burman language of central Bhutan. After presenting data showing the order of elements in the noun phrase, which contains both pre-nominal and post-nominal constituents, we examine the implications of an investigation of the combinations of these word order facts for the typological canon, and the unwritten history of the central Himalayas. Examining the distribution of typological features in languages can allow us to make inferences about the past histories of the societies that speak them. This is especially true when we encounter an unusual feature or features (for example, the existence of high vowels in a language is uninformative, while the existence of front rounded vowels can be probative). Morphosyntactically, we could argue that the absence of tense-marking in a language is (areally) significant, while the presence of definiteness marking has a (roughly) random distribution in the languages of the world. The order of elements in clauses or (noun) phrases has been the subject of much discussion, analysis, and debate in linguistics (e.g., Greenberg 1964, Dryer 1992, Hawkins, Tomlinson, etc.). Most discussion has centred on the order of subject, object and verb, complicated by pragmatic factors (such as topic and focus positions – e.g., Aissen 1992); despite this, and despite much discussion of the order of NP modifiers with respect to the (head) noun, little overall work has been done at the noun phrase level examining the combinations of constituents. We examine the overall order of elements in the NP in Bumthang, and show how examining pre-head and post-head modifiers with respect to each other as well as with respect to the head noun allows us to arrive at more nuanced typological comparisons between language. After comparing the Bumthang data with data from other noun phrase structures worldwide, we discovered that the Bumthang NP order is similar to only one other language – that of Zhang-Zhung, a language from an ancient pre-Buddhist empire of western Tibet. Given the geographical distribution of these features, and the local geography of Bumthang within Bhutan, we can thus infer that Bumthang retains the last traces of a now-extinct linguistic ecology. We assert that this ecology prevailed across the higher Himalayas and surrounding Tibetan plateau prior to the levelling that occurred with the spread of (central) Tibetan influence and the influx of influences from Indian polities to the south.

46th Annual Meeting of the Australian Linguistics Society, Monash University
Naomi Peck
Naomi Peck
PhD Student; Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin

PhD linguist who is interested in how units are formed, wherever they are found in language.