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Members of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory published a paper in Language

Members of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory published a paper in Language

In early October, members of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory published a paper in Language . Language is the flagship journal of the Linguistic Society of America and one of the most respected general linguistics journals in the world; perhaps the most prestigious one. Since the journal’s launch in 1925, it has seen the publication of only two papers whose first author is a researcher affiliated with a Russian university or institute.

The study presented in the paper was carried out based on two types of data collected during many field trips to the villages of highland Daghestan.

On the one hand, laboratory staff and students of the School of Linguistics (Faculty of Humanities) collected information about the languages ​​spoken by the inhabitants of these villages, as well as those that ​​their parents and grandparents used to speak. Considering that there are more than forty languages ​​in Daghestan, it is not surprising that village residents usually spoke the languages ​​of their neighbors, and often some other major languages ​​of Daghestan or neighboring regions, such as Avar, Azerbaijani, Kumyk, Chechen, and Georgian. Thanks to this work, the laboratory members built a database covering more than 4000 residents of more than 50 villages.

On the other hand, data on the number of loanwords in the languages of these villages have been collected for several years. For this, a special methodology was developed, within the framework of which the same list of concepts was collected for many languages in many villages. These lists were then annotated in terms of how many borrowings there are on the list, as well as what languages these borrowings come from. This method allows for a quantitative comparison of different recipient languages and dialects in terms of the extent of the donor language influence.

The study addressed the following question: what determines the number of borrowings from large languages ​​in the collected lists? For instance, why are there few borrowings from the Avar language in the lists obtained from some villages and many of them in those from other villages? The first (and trivial) answer that comes to mind is that it boils down to the number of people who speak this language in a given village. For example, in the villages of southern Daghestan almost no one used to speak Avar, and there are almost no borrowings from this language in the local lects. However, the paper shows that this consideration is not sufficient. In some villages, the number of bilinguals in certain languages ​​is comparable, but the number of borrowings varies significantly. This means, in addition to the fact that people know the language, there is still some reason for people to borrow the vocabulary of this language more or less actively.

It turned out that words are more often borrowed from languages that are lingua franca, that is, that serve for interethnic communication. For example, in the regions of Daghestan bordering Georgia, the knowledge of Georgian was traditionally widespread, but it was only used to communicate with Georgians. In contrast, Avar was used in the same villages to communicate with  speakers of neighboring Daghestan languages, including but not restricted to the Avars. In other words, the Avar language used to be the lingua franca in this area. In such cases, we find significantly more borrowings.

The paper discusses the possible causes underlying this phenomenon. Probably, the major factor is the subconscious idea that a lingua franca is not the language of some neighbors, but a common language that does not belong to anyone specific. Therefore, its vocabulary is not associated with a specific group of people and it can be "taken" into one’s language without affecting one’s own and someone else's identity.

The idea for this study originated before the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory was created. The first approaches to compiling lists of borrowed concepts were worked out in the framework of several research workshops for bachelor students of the School of Linguistics. Data on multilingualism have been collected for many years as part of practice field trips for bachelor students, and have been supported in different years by grants of the HSE research groups and individual grants from the HSE University. Then, the support of the newly established laboratory enabled the systematic collection of lists of borrowings. Finally, the paper was written. Within this time frame, one of the co-authors Ilya Chechuro, who celebrated his eighteenth birthday in the mountains of Daghestan as a bachelor’s student on a practice field trip, first became a laboratory research assistant, and then a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, who will soon defend a doctoral dissertation. Another co-author, Samira (Jannigje Helena) Verhees who started working on this project as an HSE PhD student has long defended her dissertation with honors and has become a research fellow at the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory. We are proud to say that the paper is the result of a lot of teamwork involving many contributors.