Research Group “Areal Morphology”

The Areal Morphology Group seeks to determine the precise patterns and loci of areal diffusion and resistance against diffusion in morphology. In order to achieve this goal we combine:

  • detailed case studies on the diachronic evolution and ontogenetic development of morphology under contact
  • phylogenetic modeling with explicit spatial and contact information over time, including geographical network models based on travel cost
  • high-resolution parametrization of morphology, coupled with corpus-based, probabilistic approaches

The distribution of morphology in the world’s languages is puzzling: on the one hand, there are seemingly obvious areal patterns that cross-cut several lineages at once (e.g. the isolating type in Southeast Asia, polysynthetic structures in North America). Also, morphology is prone to decay under L2 influx and multilingualism or to grow through contact-induced cliticization processes (e.g. Balkan Slavic). On the other hand, broad morphological types are often associated with individual lineages rather than areas (e.g. root-and-pattern morphology in Semitic), there are clear cases where morphology resists spread in language contact (e.g. Turkish kept its morphology despite centuries of heavy and varied L2 influx), and item borrowing is notoriously rare (although less rare than once thought).

Despite these puzzles, many debates on reconstructed proto-languages are critically informed by bonafide assumptions about the extent to which morphology or its absence spreads, especially with regard to agreement morphology (e.g. in Sino-Tibetan or in Niger-Congo). Also, current research on complexity in human language draws heavily on assumptions about the diachrony of morphology — most prominently, for example, in current debates on creole and mixed languages and the emergence of the human language faculty.

The Areal Morphology Group aims to determine the precise patterns and loci of areal diffusion and resistance against diffusion in morphology, with a particular focus on agreement and other verbal morphology (valency-related derivations/diathesis, tense/aspect/mood). We currently approach this goal via several interlocking tracks of research, including (i) case studies on the areal diachrony of specific aspects of morphology (or its absence), paying particular attention to the interface with syntax, (ii) phylogeographical modeling of the evolution of morphology in several larger language families, focusing on both abstract patterns and lexical matter (SNSF Sinergia project LiMiTS), (iii) acquisition of morphology under contact and bilingualism (ERC Consolidator project on universal principles of acquisition; SNSF project on contact phenomena in Rhaeto-Romance), (iii) corpus-based typology, and (iv) theoretical research on the typology of morphology and the demarcation of word and phrase domains in grammar and phonology. Find more information here:

Current results across all these projects suggest that progress in both the areal diachrony and the acquisition of morphology requires a much more fine-grained parametrization of what constitutes ‘words’, ‘clitics’, ‘affixes’, ‘agreement’, ‘domains’, etc. This converges with the challenges met in corpus-based research (where traditional reliance on orthography tends to heavily skew results). A particular challenge remains the status of pronominal and agreement elements (clitics).