Balthasar Bickel

Balthasar Bickel
University of Zurich | UZH · Department of Comparative Linguistics

About

226
Publications
46,553
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3,120
Citations
Citations since 2016
55 Research Items
1877 Citations
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20162017201820192020202120220100200300
20162017201820192020202120220100200300

Publications

Publications (226)
Article
Full-text available
Human history is written in both our genes and our languages. The extent to which our biological and linguistic histories are congruent has been the subject of considerable debate, with clear examples of both matches and mismatches. To disentangle the patterns of demographic and cultural transmission, we need a global systematic assessment of match...
Preprint
Morphological systems often reuse the same forms in different functions, creating what is known as syncretism. While syncretism varies greatly, certain cross-linguistic tendencies are apparent. Patterns where all syncretic forms share a morphological feature value (e.g., first person, or plural number) are most common cross-linguistically, and this...
Article
Full-text available
Morphological systems often reuse the same forms in different functions, creating what is known as syncretism. While syncretism varies greatly, certain cross-linguistic tendencies are apparent. Patterns where all syncretic forms share a morphological feature value (e.g., first person, or plural number) are most common cross-linguistically, and this...
Preprint
Morphological complexity metrics like entropy, and notions like the Paradigm Cell-Filling Problem, have recently (re)gained popularity for the synchronic analysis of inflectional systems. The potential of these quantitative approaches, however, remains largely untapped with respect to diachronic research. This paper constitutes a first exploration...
Article
Full-text available
A prominent principle in explaining a range of word-order regularities is dependency locality, which minimizes the linear distances (dependency lengths) between a head and its dependents. However, it remains unclear to what extent language users in fact observe locality when producing sentences under diverse conditions of cross-categorical harmony...
Article
Full-text available
Emerging data in a range of non-human animal species have highlighted a latent ability to combine certain pre-existing calls together into larger structures. Currently, however, the quantification of context-specific call combinations has received less attention. This is problematic because animal calls can co-occur with one another simply through...
Article
Languages differ in how they mark the dependencies between verbs and arguments, e.g., by case. An eye tracking and EEG picture description study examined the influence of case marking on the time course of sentence planning in Basque and Swiss German. While German assigns an unmarked (nominative) case to subjects, Basque specifically marks agent ar...
Article
Languages tend to encode events from the perspective of agents, placing them first and in simpler forms than patients. This agent bias is mirrored by cognition: Agents are more quickly recognized than patients and generally attract more attention. This leads to the hypothesis that key aspects of language structure are fundamentally rooted in a cogn...
Article
Full-text available
Spoken language, as we have it, requires specific capacities—at its most basic advanced vocal control and complex social cognition. In humans, vocal control is the basis for speech, achieved through coordinated interactions of larynx activity and rapid changes in vocal tract configurations. Most likely, speech evolved in response to early humans pe...
Article
Full-text available
Inflectional affixes expressing the same grammatical category (e.g., subject agreement) tend to appear in the same morphological position in the word. We hypothesize that this cross‐linguistic tendency toward category clustering is at least partly the result of a learning bias, which facilitates the transmission of morphology from one generation to...
Article
As efficient systems of communication, languages are usually expected to map meanings to forms in a one-to-one way, using for example the same affix form (e.g., -s in English) every time a particular meaning is intended (e.g., plural number), and placing affixes with the same meaning consistently in the same position (e.g., always suffixal). Forms...
Conference Paper
Romance verb stem alternations (e.g., Spanish tengo `I have' vs. tienes `you have') constitute seemingly unnecessary but highly inheritable morphological traits. Using novel phylogenetic methods, we assess the impact of frequency and alternation patterns on properties of their evolution, specifically on the speed of change and the long term prefere...
Article
Full-text available
Previous work suggests that when speakers linearize syntactic structures, they place longer and more complex dependents further away from the head word to which they belong than shorter and simpler dependents, and that they do so with increasing rigidity the longer expressions get, for example, longer objects tend to be placed further away from the...
Article
Full-text available
The way infants learn language is a highly complex adaptive behavior. This behavior chiefly relies on the ability to extract information from the speech they hear and combine it with information from the external environment. Most theories assume that this ability critically hinges on the recognition of at least some syntactic structure. Here, we s...
Article
When speakers of different languages interact, they are likely to influence each other: contact leaves traces in the linguistic record, which in turn can reveal geographical areas of past human interaction and migration. However, other factors may contribute to similarities between languages. Inheritance from a shared ancestral language and univers...
Article
Full-text available
Culture evolves in ways that are analogous to, but distinct from, genomes. Previous studies examined similarities between cultural variation and genetic variation (population history) at small scales within language families, but few studies have empirically investigated these parallels across language families using diverse cultural data. We repor...
Preprint
Full-text available
Emerging data in a range of non-human animal species have highlighted a latent ability to combine certain pre-existing calls together into larger structures. Currently, however, there exists no objective quantification of call combinations. This is problematic because animal calls can co-occur with one another simply through chance alone. One commo...
Article
Full-text available
Some languages around the Pacific have multiple possessive classes of alienable constructions using appositive nouns or classifiers. This pattern differs from the most common kind of alienable/inalienable distinction, which involves marking, usually affixal, on the possessum, and has only one class of alienables. The Japanese language isolate Ainu...
Article
In his target article “General linguistics must be based on universals (or nonconventional aspects of language)”, Martin Haspelmath invites us to reconsider the distinction between general linguistics and the linguistics of a particular language. The distinction is clearly useful to demarcate foci of interest and job descriptions. Also, it helps cl...
Preprint
Full-text available
When speakers of two or more languages interact, they are likely to influence each other: contact leaves traces in the linguistic record, which in turn can reveal geographic areas of past human interaction and migration. However the complex, multi-dimensional nature of contact has hindered the development of a rigorous methodology for detecting its...
Article
Words in utterance-final positions are often pronounced more slowly than utterance-medial words, as previous studies on individual languages have shown. This paper provides a systematic cross-linguistic comparison of relative durations of final and penultimate words in utterances in terms of the degree to which such words are lengthened. The study...
Article
Full-text available
Planning to speak is a challenge for the brain, and the challenge varies between and within languages. Yet, little is known about how neural processes react to these variable challenges beyond the planning of individual words. Here, we examine how fundamental differences in syntax shape the time course of sentence planning. Most languages treat ali...
Article
Full-text available
Bayesian phylogeography has been used in historical linguistics to reconstruct homelands and expansions of language families, but the reliability of these reconstructions has remained unclear. We contribute to this discussion with a simulation study where we distinguish two types of spatial processes: migration, where populations or languages leave...
Article
Morphological complexity is expected to decrease under mass admixture from adult second language speakers. While this has been chiefly shown for morphological richness, an unresolved question is whether the effect extends to aspects of morphological boundedness. Here we report a case study of Sino-Tibetan verbs, contrasting verbal expressions of tw...
Article
Full-text available
This paper investigates the origins of sortal numeral classifiers in the Indo-Iranian languages. While these are often assumed to result from contact with non-Indo-European languages, an alternative possibility is that classifiers developed as a response to the rise of optional plural marking. This alternative is in line with the so-called Greenber...
Article
Communication plays a vital role in the social lives of many species and varies greatly in complexity. One possible way to increase communicative complexity is by combining signals into longer sequences, which has been proposed as a mechanism allowing species with a limited repertoire to increase their communicative output. In mammals, most studies...
Preprint
Morphological complexity is expected to decrease under mass admixture from adult second language speakers. While this has been chiefly shown for morphological richness, an unresolved question is whether the effect extends to aspects of morphological boundedness. Here we report a case study of Sino-Tibetan verbs, contrasting verbal expressions of tw...
Preprint
The way infants manage to extract meaning from the speech stream when learning their first language is a highly complex adaptive behavior. This behavior chiefly relies on the ability to extract information from speech they hear and combine it with the external environment they encounter. However, little is known about the underlying distribution of...
Article
Huijbregts’s commentary¹ about our paper (Blasi et al. 2019) gives us the opportunity to highlight an ongoing problem in the investigation of language evolution that has hindered its research since the 19th century: the lack of engagement with empirical data. This problem stems partially from the issue of how language is defined, and consequently,...
Preprint
Full-text available
Bayesian phylogeography aims to reconstruct migrations in evolutionary processes. This methodological framework has been used for the reconstruction of homelands and historical expansions of various language families, but its reliability for language diversification research has remained unclear. We contribute to this discussion with a simulation s...
Chapter
The Language of Hunter-Gatherers - edited by Tom Güldemann February 2020
Preprint
Full-text available
In Blasi et al. (2019) we have shown, through a series of statistical analyses and models, that human sound systems have been affected by a transition in bite configuration starting from the Neolithic. Tarasov and Uyeda (2020) (henceforth T&U) raise a number of observations in relation to our article. We appreciate T&U’s engagement with our work an...
Article
Recent research has revealed several languages (e.g. Chintang, Rarámuri, Tagalog, Murrinhpatha) that challenge the general expectation of strict sequential ordering in morphological structure. However, it has remained unclear whether these languages exhibit random placement of affixes or whether there are some underlying probabilistic principles th...
Article
Full-text available
This paper explores the application of quantitative methods to study the effect of various factors on phonetic word duration in ten languages. Data on most of these languages were collected in fieldwork aiming at documenting spontaneous speech in mostly endangered languages, to be used for multiple purposes, including the preservation of cultural h...
Article
Morphological complexity is expected to decrease under mass admixture from adult second language speakers. While this has been chiefly shown for morphological richness, an unresolved question is whether the effect extends to aspects of morphological boundedness. Here we report a case study of Sino-Tibetan verbs, contrasting verbal expressions of tw...
Preprint
Recent research has revealed several languages (e.g. Chintang, Raráramuri, Tagalog, Murrinhpatha) that challenge the general expectation of strict sequential ordering in morphological structure. However, it has remained unclear whether these languages exhibit random placement of affixes or whether there are some underlying probabilistic principles...
Article
The first fricatives In 1985, the linguist Charles Hockett proposed that the use of teeth and jaws as tools in hunter-gatherer populations makes consonants produced with lower lip and upper teeth (“f” and “v” sounds) hard to produce. He thus conjectured that these sounds were a recent innovation in human language. Blasi et al. combined paleoanthrop...
Preprint
Full-text available
Culture evolves in ways that are analogous to, but distinct from, genetic evolution. Previous studies have demonstrated correlations between genetic and cultural diversity at small scales within language families, but few studies have empirically investigated parallels between genetic and cultural evolution across multiple language families using a...
Article
Linguistic diversity is a key aspect of human population diversity and shapes much of our social and cognitive lives. To a considerable extent, the distribution of this diversity is driven by environmental factors such as climate or coast access. An unresolved question is whether the relevant factors have remained constant over time. Here, we addre...
Article
Full-text available
A key step in understanding the evolution of human language involves unravelling the origins of language’s syntactic structure. One approach seeks to reduce the core of syntax in humans to a single principle of recursive combination, merge, for which there is no evidence in other species. We argue for an alternative approach. We review evidence tha...
Article
Full-text available
Significance When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the wo...
Article
Full-text available
Some languages constrain the recursive embedding of NPs to some specific morphosyntactic types, allowing it for example only with genitives but not with bare juxtaposition. In Indo-European, every type of NP embedding — genitives, adjectivizers, adpositions, head marking, or juxtaposition — is unavailable for syntactic recursion in at least one att...
Chapter
Full-text available
Polysynthesis presupposes the existence of 'words', a domain or unit of phonology and syntax that is extremely variable within and across languages: what behaves as a 'word' with respect to one phonological or syntactic rule or constraint may not behave as such with respect to other rules or constraints. Here we develop a system of variables that a...
Chapter
Full-text available
Introduction In explanations of how linguistic structures are distributed in the world, the pendulum has swung back from an emphasis on universals, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, to a renewed emphasis on local developments and areal diffusion. This shift in emphasis started over twenty years ago with Dryer (1989), who dre...
Article
Full-text available
Language's intentional nature has been highlighted as a crucial feature distinguishing it from other communication systems. Specifically, language is often thought to depend on highly structured intentional action and mutual mindreading by a communicator and recipient. Whilst similar abilities in animals can shed light on the evolution of intention...
Article
Apart from common cases of differential argument marking, referential hierarchies affect argument marking in two ways: (a) through hierarchical marking, where markers compete for a slot and the competition is resolved by a hierarchy, and (b) through co-argument sensitivity, where the marking of one argument depends on the properties of its co-argum...
Chapter
Full-text available
Large-scale areal patterns point to ancient population history and form a well-known confound for language universals. Despite their importance, demonstrating such patterns remains a challenge. This chapter argues that large-scale area hypotheses are better tested by modeling diachronic family biases than by controlling for genealogical relations i...
Article
Full-text available
Do principles of language processing in the brain affect the way grammar evolves over time or is language change just a matter of socio-historical contingency? While the balance of evidence has been ambiguous and controversial, we identify here a neurophysiological constraint on the processing of language that has a systematic effect on the evoluti...
Chapter
Two principles shaping agreement paradigms have been implicitly assumedto constitute diachronic universals: (i)ergativity is assumed to bemore likely to develop or be maintained in third than in non-third person; (ii) zeros are assumed to develop and be preserved more commonly in third than in non-third person. Estimating probabilities of diachroni...
Article
Full-text available
A quantitative analysis of a trans-generational, conversational corpus of Chintang (Tibeto-Burman) speakers with community-wide bilingualism in Nepali (Indo-European) reveals that children show more code-switching into Nepali than older speakers. This confirms earlier proposals in the literature that code-switching in bilingual children decreases w...
Article
Several Kiranti languages (Tibeto-Burman, Nepal) from different genealogical sub-groups show multiple parallel developments from antipassive constructions with generic, non-specific objects into agreement markers registering first person objects. The developments span a relatively contiguous geographical area in the southernmost part of the family....
Article
This paper seeks to determine to what extent there is cross-linguistic evidence for postulating clusters of predicate-specific semantic roles such as experiencer, cognizer, possessor, etc. For this, we survey non-default case assignments in a sample of 141 languages and annotate the associated predicates for cross-linguistically recurrent semantic...
Article
Phonology and syntax represent two layers of sound combination central to language's expressive power. Comparative animal studies represent one approach to understand the origins of these combinatorial layers. Traditionally, phonology, where meaningless sounds form words, has been considered a simpler combination than syntax, and thus should be mor...
Chapter
Full-text available
This chapter illustrates the various ways in which languages differ from each other and then raises the question in what sense one can talk about universals despite this apparent diversity and variation. It reviews the extent of the diversity that we know from today’s languages in the world, by highlighting the core domains of language: phonology,...