Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Nettle (1999)

Nettle, Daniel. Linguistic Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. 168 pp + xi

Reviewed by Samar Sinha (on 25.11.2001)

Anthropologists Nettle observes the diversity in the human language despite similar biological make-up and makes an effort to explain grammatical, temporal, or social diversity in a single framework. In fact, the book under review offers Nettle's attempt to theorise the linguistic diversity and its global distribution, an under-theorised topic.

The book is organised as follows:
    1. Introduction
    2. Language evolution: Basic mechanisms
    3. Language evolution: Computer simulations
    4. Language diversity: Patterns in space
    5. Language diversity: Changes in time
    6. Phylogenetic diversity
    7. Structural diversity

In addition to these chapters, figures, tables, epilogue, appendix, references and index make the book under review reader friendly.

In Chapter 1, the author takes language as a instinct, hard-wired in the human brain (Pinker 1994) and tries to find the mechanism involved behind the linguistic diversity in synchronic linguistics on the universal nature of language. He disapproves the family-tree model of the historical linguistics on the account that it does not account for all types of linguistic changes, and presents an alternative conceptualisation of linguistic diversity, using biological analogy, base on the notions of the linguistic item and the linguistic pool. A human linguistic pool is n abstract entity analogous to the human gene pool, which contains all the different bits of linguistic information found in human languages, and the elements of the pool is the linguistic items rather than the languages. The items include words, sounds, phonological processes, grammatical patterns and constructions which can be independently learnt and transmitted from one speaker to another or from one language to another. He incorporates items to account typological study between human speech communities. The author outlines three types of diversity in the linguistic pool:
    i. Language diversity: The number of different languages in a given geographical area.
    ii. Phylogenetic diversity: The number of different lineages of language found in an area.
    iii. Structural diversity: The parametric variations.

The author draws parallelism between linguistic evolution and biological evolution in Chapter 2, and argues that for linguistic evolution to be possible, there must be both source and amplifiers of divergence. The basic model, to which he calls the neutral model, does account for small  random variations arising due to performance factors, imperfect learning, and possibly social behaviour. He regards performance and acquisition as the sources of variation. But the model fails to address these key problems:
    i. How random variations alone can lead to sustained linguistic diversification.
    ii. How to account diversification in the absence of geographical isolation. 
   iii. How to account patterns of structural correlation in the world's languages that represent parallel evolution.

The two additional mechanisms: social selection (i.e. acquirer's identification with a group) and functional selection (i.e. least-effort principles of processing), have been incorporated to overcome these problems.  The author defends the functional selection leading to diversity rather than uniformity by positing 'fitness value' (effective at being learned and used by speakers) and under the functional selection, a language evolves towards the highest 'fitness value' settling in one of the optimal positions of the linguistic parameter. Though lucidly written, the argument needs to be substantiated by the empirical evidence in the context of the 'fitness value'.

In chapter 3, the author uses computer simulations to suggest some more concrete solutions to the key problems. An experiment in which people learn language under various circumstances is designed using computer simulation, due to limitations of natural experiment to furnish required and precise conditions. The result of the experiment deals with the importance and power of social selection, its nature and function. though relevant to prove his point, the non-quantitatively minded reader can skip the chapter incurring no loss.

The fig. 4.1 (p. 62) in Chapter 4 shows that linguistic diversity is higher in the tropics and decreases towards the poles; and suggests specific associations between the language and biological diversity. It also shows higher linguistic diversity in the Old World than in the New World like the biological diversity. The author mentions the vectors of language spread by reversing the factors that enhanced the development of a human language in history. The vectors are:
    i. The lack of fact to face interaction.
    ii. The secondary social bonds.
    iii. The influence of state mechanisms and its associated systems.
    iv. The economic system. 

The case studies from interior New Guinea, the Hausaland, and the Fulani and the Tuareg representing different ecological regimes  show the inter-linkage between social, economic, and ecological conditions and accounts importance of the ecological risk on the human social networks, which in turn produce different sized linguistic groups. The author relying on the arguments from the anthropological works, concludes that the linguistic diversity is determined by the socio-economic organisation, which is affected by the local ecology. However, the industrialised societies deserve to be studied before reaching the above conclusion. 

In Chapter 5, the author takes Dixon's (1997) framework: equilibria and punctuation (I shall assume reader's familiarity with the concepts) for inquiry into changes in linguistic diversity through time. He identifies the long equilibria in the Palaeolithic stage, and the great punctuations at the beginning of the Neolithic in the Old World and during the rise of expansionist industrial economies. this chapter draws its sustenance from the works of anthropologists. The framework validates temporal diversity in languages over different cultures, but the author himself suggests that prediction cannot be made regarding what equilibrium will be reached after the industrial punctuations.

The distribution of the world's phylogenetic diversity is studied in Chapter 6. The author takes Nichol's (1990, 1992) reference label of lineage - 'stock' for it His study shows that the phylogenetic diversity is unevenly distributed across the globe, with an order of magnitude more languages per stock in the Old World than in the New World. In this chapter, the author discusses the kinds of processes involved in fostering the phylogenetic distribution.

Nettle provides anthropological approach in understanding structural diversity, which is purely a linguistic subject, to provide additional insight into the subject in the concluding chapter. He chooses word order and phonological inventory to study this diversity and examines how amplifiers can produce structural diversity in languages. The author, finally, draws his readers' attention to: why languages in some regions follow certain paths while those elsewhere follow others, which certainly deserves scholar's attention and investigation.

Observing the gigantic issue of diversity, Linguistic Diversity is an appreciable, scholarly work written in a clear, lively, and accessible style within a framework of anthropological linguistics. The book is an attempt to explain the diversity from the explanatory view point rather than from the functional viewpoint. Nettle fails to address the necessity of diversity and remains unsuccessful in making his reader realise the need of linguistic diversity. His view on diversity seems to be a superstructure over the human moulded by ecology and economy rather than by the survival factor. Despite bringing various arguments, approaches and viewpoints to the study of linguistic diversity, which undoubtedly have enriched the study, Nettle misses an important aspect of political history - power relation between the individual societies, states and linguistic groups. The author confines himself within the title of the book and does not address 'the  cult of homogenisation and the anti-diversity factors, which are equally powerful as the forces that lead to diversification. As a hallmark of a scholar, Nettle invokes his reader towards the study of functional, cognitive and areal viewpoint to theorise the linguistic diversity. Finally, the book deserves a reader to express (as I did to my friends), 'Have you read Linguistic Diversity by Nettle ? It is worth reading.'

Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Darjeeling Photos 072010

झुल्के जून
The rising Moon on a warm summer day in Kalimpong. The dark monsoon clouds hover on her in the twilight. Pic at Bong Busty, Kalimpong.
धुम्म घारीमा
Uttis (alnus nepalensis) and the Balasan witness the Rangbull-Balsan valley in perennial fog.
टिस्टा देखी आकाशतिर
A droplet at the Teesta, fog at the valley, a handful of cloud in the sky, yet I know not where I'll lie. Pic at Deolo Tourist Lodge compound, Kalimpong.
घर बाटको दृश्य
A view of the south-west ranges (India and Nepal)  from my home at Rangbull, Darjeeling.