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Institut für Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft Balthasar Bickel

Balthasar Bickel

Compared to the communication system of other species, human language is strikingly diverse. My research aims at understanding this diversity with rigorously tested causal models, i.e. at answering the question what’s where why in language [1–3]. What structures are there, and how exactly do they vary? Where and under which conditions do we find specific structures? Why do languages evolve and diversify in the way they do?

To answer the what questions, I have been engaged in linguistic fieldwork and primary data analysis for many years. I began with research on Bantu but soon focused my attention on outlier languages in the Himalayas [4–10]. This culminated in a 10-year-long project on the endangered Tibeto-Burman language Chintang which I conducted together with cultural anthropologists and developmental psychologists [11–16, CLRP]. We have developed the largest fully annotated spontaneous language corpus (> 1 mio words) in a small-scale society [17], and we now complement our analyses with a suite of experiments on language processing and event cognition. I integrate fieldwork results into a database of global structural diversity (AUTOTYP) that I developed together with Johanna Nichols and others [18, 19]. The distinctive feature of AUTOTYP is that we strive at maximal decomposition of linguistic patterns into highly specific and precise properties, supporting multiple ways of aggregating and connecting data points. My main foci here have been grammatical relations [20–25], word domains [26–30], and clause linkage [31, 32].

For answering the where question I apply various statistical modeling techniques to elucidate the distribution of languages and their properties (mostly from AUTOTYP and corpora) [23, 27, 33, 34]: Are distributions constrained by local population histories and contact? Are there universally consistent biases when languages evolve over time? To distinguish between these scenarios, I have led collaborative projects (including a Swiss ‘Sinergia’ grant) where I work with geographers and molecular anthropologists and test effects from the environment and human migration routes on the current distribution of languages and their properties [35–37]. A particular concern in my current work is the effects that the specific geography and long-term migrations in Eurasia had on the distribution of key linguistic properties (e.g. case marking and verbal morphology) [38, 39]. In an ongoing project together with geneticists we also probe more narrow patterns along the northeastern Pacific coast of Eurasia, as the gateway of the early settlements of the Americas.

In seeking answers to the why question I chiefly focus on explaining universally consistent biases in the diachrony of grammar properties, biases that are independent of local historical events [39–41]. Like many linguists in what is known as the typological tradition, I am interested in explanations from the human production and comprehension systems. For such explanations to work, however, I find it mission-critical to first assess the extent to which language processing mechanisms are plastic vs. invariant across languages, how exactly the production and comprehension systems relate to each other, and what effect each system has in language change. To resolve these questions, I co-lead projects with neuroscientists where we conduct experiments (chiefly EEG and eye-tracking) in highly diverse linguistic and cultural settings [40, 42]. I combine this research with analyses of production data in naturalistic corpora (such as the one we developed for Chintang) [43–45].

In the long run, I aim at pushing explanations even deeper, adopting an evolutionary perspective. To this end, I collaborate with language acquisition specialists on universal mechanisms in linguistic ontogeny [13–15] and with behavioral biologists on probing the phylogenetic roots of specific mechanisms in, for example, call and sentence combination [46, 47].

Selected References:

1. Bickel B. 2007. Typology in the 21st century: Major current developments. Linguistic Typology. 11:239–51

2. Bickel B. 2014. Linguistic diversity and universals. In The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, ed NJ Enfield, P Kockelman, J Sidnell, pp. 102–27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

3. Bickel B. 2015. Distributional typology: Statistical inquiries into the dynamics of linguistic diversity. In The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 2nd edition, ed B Heine, H Narrog, pp. 901–23. Oxford: Oxford University Press

4. Bickel B, Gaenszle M. 1999. Introduction: Cultural horizons and practices in Himalayan space. In Himalayan space: Cultural horizons and practices, ed B Bickel, M Gaenszle, pp. 9–27. Zürich: Museum of Ethnography

5. Bickel B. 2000. Deictic transposition and referential practice in Belhare. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 10:224–47

6. Bickel B. 2000. Person and evidence in Himalayan languages. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area. 23:1–12

7. Bickel B. 2004. Hidden syntax in Belhare. In Himalayan languages: Past and present, ed A Saxena, pp. 141–90. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

8. Bickel B. 2004. The syntax of experiencers in the Himalayas. In Non-nominative subjects, ed P Bhaskararao, KV Subbarao, pp. 77–112. Amsterdam: Benjamins

9. Bickel B, Gaenszle M. 2015. First person objects, antipassives, and the political history of the southern Kirant. Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics. 2:63–86

10. Bickel B. 2017. Belhare. In The Sino-Tibetan languages, ed G Thurgood, RJ LaPolla, pp. 546–70. London: Routledge (2nd, revised edition)

11. Gaenszle M, Bickel B, Banjade G, Lieven E, Paudyal N, Rai IP, Rai M, Rai NK, Stoll S. 2005. Worshipping the king god: A preliminary analysis of Chintang ritual language in the invocation of Rajdeu. In Current issues in Nepalese linguistics, ed YP Yadava, G Bhattarai, RR Lohani, B Prasain, K Parajuli, pp. 33–47. Kathmandu: Linguistic Society of Nepal

12. Gaenszle M, Bickel B, Pettigrew J, Schackow D, Rai A, Rai SK, Sharma (Gautam) NP. 2011. Binomials and the noun-to-verb ratio in Puma Rai ritual speech. Anthropological Linguistics. 53:365–81

13. Stoll S, Bickel B, Lieven E, Banjade G, Bhatta TN, Gaenszle M, Paudyal NP, Pettigrew J, Rai IP, Rai M, Rai NK. 2012. Nouns and verbs in Chintang: Children’s usage and surrounding adult speech. Journal of Child Language. 39:284–321

14. Stoll S, Bickel B. 2013. The acquisition of ergative case in Chintang. In The acquisition of ergative languages, ed S Stoll, EL Bavin, pp. 183–207. Amsterdam: Benjamins

15. Stoll S, Mazara J, Bickel B. 2017. The acquisition of polysynthetic verb forms in Chintang. In The Oxford Handbook of Polysynthesis, ed MD Fortescue, M Mithun, N Evans, pp. 495–514. Oxford: Oxford University Press

16. Stoll S, Zakharko T, Moran S, Schikowski R, Bickel B. 2015. Syntactic mixing across generations in an environment of community-wide bilingualism. Frontiers in Psychology. 6:82:

17. Bickel B, Stoll S, Gaenszle M, Rai NK, Lieven E, Banjade G, Bhatta TN, Paudyal N, Pettigrew J, Rai IP, Rai M. 2013. Audiovisual corpus of the Chintang language, including a longitudinal corpus of language acquisition by six children (ca. 1.2 mio words). DOBES Archive, and

18. Bickel B, Nichols J. 2002. Autotypologizing databases and their use in fieldwork. In Proceedings of the International LREC Workshop on Resources and Tools in Field Linguistics, Las Palmas, 26-27 May 2002, ed P Austin, H Dry, P Wittenburg. Nijmegen: MPI for Psycholinguistics []

19. Bickel B, Nichols J, Zakharko T, Witzlack-Makarevich A, Hildebrandt K, Rießler M, Bierkandt L, Zúñiga F, Lowe JB. 2017. The AUTOTYP typological databases, version 0.1.0. GitHub []

20. Bickel B, Yādava YP. 2000. A fresh look at grammatical relations in Indo-Aryan. Lingua. 110:343–73

21. Bickel B. 2011. Grammatical relations typology. In The Oxford Handbook of Language Typology, ed JJ Song, pp. 399–444. Oxford: Oxford University Press

22. Bickel B, Zakharko T, Bierkandt L, Witzlack-Makarevich A. 2014. Semantic role clustering: An empirical assessments of semantic role types in non-default case assignment. Studies in Language. 38:485–511

23. Bickel B, Witzlack-Makarevich A, Zakharko T. 2014. Typological evidence against universal effects of referential scales on case alignment. In Scales: A cross-disciplinary perspective on referential hierarchies, ed I Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, A Malchukov, M Richards, pp. 7–43. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton

24. Schikowski R, Paudyal NP, Bickel B. 2015. Flexible valency in Chintang. In Valency classes in the world’s languages, ed B Comrie, A Malchukov, pp. 669–707. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton

25. Witzlack-Makarevich A, Zakharko T, Bierkandt L, Zúñiga F, Bickel B. 2016. Decomposing hierarchical alignment: Co-arguments as conditions on alignment and the limits of referential hierarchies as explanations in verb agreement. Linguistics. 54:531–61

26. Bickel B, Banjade G, Gaenszle M, Lieven E, Paudyal N, Rai IP, Rai M, Rai NK, Stoll S. 2007. Free prefix ordering in Chintang. Language. 83:43–73

27. Bickel B, Hildebrandt K, Schiering R. 2009. The distribution of phonological word domains: A probabilistic typology. In Phonological domains: Universals and deviations, ed J Grijzenhout, B Kabak, pp. 47–75. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

28. Schiering R, Bickel B, Hildebrandt K. 2010. The prosodic word is not universal, but emergent. Journal of Linguistics. 46:657–709

29. Schiering R, Hildebrandt K, Bickel B. 2012. Stress-timed = word-based? Testing a hypothesis in prosodic typology. Language Typology and Universals. 65:157–68

30. Bickel B, Zúñiga F. 2017. The “word” in polysynthetic languages: Phonological and syntactic challenges. In The Oxford Handbook of Polysynthesis, ed MD Fortescue, M Mithun, N Evans, pp. 158–85. Oxford: Oxford University Press

31. Bickel B. 2010. Capturing particulars and universals in clause linkage: A multivariate analysis. In Clause-hierarchy and clause-linking: The syntax and pragmatics interface, ed I Bril, pp. 51–101. Amsterdam: Benjamins

32. Schackow D, Bickel B, Rai SK, Sharma (Gautam) NP, Rai A, Gaenszle M. 2012. Morphosyntactic properties and scope behavior of “subordinate” clauses in Puma (Kiranti). In Clause-combining in cross-linguistic perspective, ed V Gast, H Diessel, pp. 105–26. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton

33. Bickel B. 2011. Statistical modeling of language universals. Linguistic Typology. 15:401–14

34. Bickel B. 2013. Distributional biases in language families. In Language typology and historical contingency, ed B Bickel, LA Grenoble, DA Peterson, A Timberlake, pp. 415–44. Amsterdam: Benjamins

35. Bickel B, Nichols J. 2005. Inclusive/exclusive as person vs. number categories worldwide. In Clusivity, ed E Filimonova, pp. 47–70. Amsterdam: Benjamins

36. Bickel B, Nichols J. 2006. Oceania, the Pacific Rim, and the theory of linguistic areas. Proc. Berkeley Linguistics Society. 32:3–15

37. Derungs C, Köhli M, Weibel R, Bickel B. 2018. Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter-gatherer populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 285:20172851

38. Bickel B. Large and ancient linguistic areas. In Language dispersal, diversification, and contact: A global perspective, ed M Crevels, J-M Hombert, P Muysken. Oxford: Oxford University Press [pre-print available at]

39. Bickel B. 2017. Areas and universals. In The Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics, ed R Hickey, pp. 40–55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

40. Bickel B, Witzlack-Makarevich A, Choudhary KK, Schlesewsky M, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky I. 2015. The neurophysiology of language processing shapes the evolution of grammar: Evidence from case marking. PLoS ONE. 10:e0132819

41. Widmer M, Auderset S, Widmer P, Nichols J, Bickel B. 2017. NP recursion over time: Evidence from Indo-European. Language. 93:1–36

42. Wang L, Schlesewsky M, Bickel B, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky I. 2009. Exploring the nature of the “subject”-preference: Evidence from the online comprehension of simple sentences in Mandarin Chinese. Language and Cognitive Processes. 24:1180–1226

43. Bickel B. 2003. Referential density in discourse and syntactic typology. Language. 79:708–36

44. Stoll S, Bickel B. 2009. How deep are differences in referential density? In Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language, ed J Guo, E Lieven, N Budwig, S Ervin-Tripp, K Nakamura, Ş Özçalişkan, pp. 543–55. London: Psychology Press

45. Seifart F, Strunk J, Danielsen S, Hartmann I, Pakendorf B, Wichmann S, Witzlack-Makarevich A, Jong NH de, Bickel B. 2018. Nouns slow down speech across structurally and culturally diverse languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 10.1073/pnas.1800708115:

46. Collier K, Bickel B, Schaik CP van, Manser MB, Townsend SW. 2014. Language evolution: Syntax before phonology? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 281:20140263

47. Townsend SW, Engesser S, Stoll S, Zuberbühler K, Bickel B. 2018. Compositionality in animals and humans. PLoS Biology. 16:e2006425

Weiterführende Informationen

Firedocs-Editor: Neues Attribut hinzufügen (Sidebar, Attributes)

An example of my research:

Probabilities of assigning the same case maker to the sole argument of 1-place predicates ("S") and the most agent-like argument of 2- and 3-place predicates ("A"). Blue: very likely, red: very unlikely ("ergative"). More on this, and the causes of the distribution in a PLoS ONE paper.