3

Some examples would include (languages in which) males and females use different words, there are no numerals or grammatical gender or number distinction, etc.

Is there a field of linguistics that studies or collects and organizes such data?

2
  • 2
    I guess every language has a different feature so field linguistics encompasses them all? Jan 14 '18 at 16:30
  • @WiccanKarnak The word curious is highly subjective. All features can seem "curious" when viewed from a language that doesn't have them.
    – striglunnd
    Jan 14 '18 at 16:42
5

Collection of data is one area of linguistics, though there is currently a nomenclature problem that we don't know what to call it. I'm referring to field-working, where one gathers data from speakers of an un(der)-described language and presents it to the world. The first step in dealing with "curious" features of language is knowing and showing that they exist in a specific language. Finding such rarities depends in part on good luck (there's nothing that you can do about it if the language is totally ordinary), and in part on the analyst's recognition that a particular fact of the language is unique in the world's languages. Because finding such nuggets is a low-frequency event, it (rarity-finding) is not generally a practical specialization.

Typology seeks to determine the range of possibilities in languages, and in so doing cares about what things are common versus uncommon (for some practitioners, it also includes the development of a set of "types", and may seek functional explanations for observed correlations and frequencies). Typology depends on the research product of field workers, indeed many typologists are also field-workers. However, typology's interest is not limited to just those things that you could call "unusual".

The organization of knowledge of features across languages is what we could call an "emerging" discipline. One main impediment to systematically studying unusual features (i.e. features with surprisingly low occurrence in human language) is the non-systematic form of the available data – there is no structured database of all of the facts known by field-workers. I cannot call up a complete or even particularly good list of languages that have inflectionally-conditioned tone changes on verbs, so if I encounter a language that distinguishes two verb tenses solely by tone pattern, there's no central repository where I can see if that is common or rare. Instead, I would have to rely on my prior experience, or email a colleague (who may also not know). Accordingly, I do not know if there is any language where geminate consonants block vowel harmony, other than the one that I know of. This area is "emerging" in that more and more data is becoming available online (thus potentially part of a systematic study), and methods are developing for encoding analysis. I am skeptical that anything short of a sentient data-crunching program would answer the question of geminate-blockage, unless it goes on a checklist of questions to ask (similar to the Lingua descriptive questionnaire).

Most subdisciplines of generative grammar have an implicit typological component, given the premise of that theory that there are limits to how languages can differ, thus you have to know what is possible versus impossible, and in particular you would need to be able to distinguish "impossible" from "rare". In principle, syntax, phonology, morphology, semantics and phonetics could be concerned with rarities (in a certain component of grammar), as a tool to reaching their ultimate research goals.

3
  • And not only is there no structured database, there isn't even a standard way to code data yet (GOLD seems to be an inactive project by now ><). Really hope the area won't stay in its emerging state for long, particularly has linguistic diversity is being chipped away every day! Jan 15 '18 at 1:12
  • 1
    I opted to let such approaches develop eventually and someone else's hands, and I'll focus on basic language description which maybe somebody manually translate from plain English to XML, once the system is figured out.
    – user6726
    Jan 15 '18 at 2:15
  • I can't overemphasize how random such a find is. I had studied Acehnese for a semester or so in a field methods class and happened to mention to Paul Postal that what looked like a passive sentence still agreed with the original agent subject. That was the genesis of the Acehnese passive dispute, which has escalated until there is now a third ("Indonesian") type, beside the standard accusative/ergative distinction.
    – jlawler
    Jan 15 '18 at 18:36
4

No, there is no linguistic discipline that studies such unique features exclusively.

That being said, such phenomena are a part of linguistic typology, e.g. Rara & Rarissima: Documenting the Fringes of Linguistic Diversity (2010).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.