Using Language Invention to Teach Typology and Cross-Linguistic Universals

Matt Pearson received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from UCLA, and currently serves as Professor of Linguistics at Reed College (Portland, Oregon), where he teaches syntax, typology, morphology, semantics, and field methods. His research on word order and clause structure in Malagasy has appeared in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory and other publications. In 1996-97 Matt created the alien language for the NBC science fiction series Dark Skies. Matt’s naturalistic artlang Okuna, developed over more than 20 years, earned a Smiley Award from David Peterson along with a mention in his book The Art of Language Invention.

Abstract

Matt Pearson discusses a project where students learn about language typology by creating a naturalistic constructed language. Students review cross-linguistic variation in natural languages (in areas such as phoneme inventory, word order, case alignment, etc.), and then determine which properties their invented language will have. Decisions are made at random by spinning a wheel. Attached to the wheel is a pie chart, where the size of each slice represents the percentage of the world’s languages possessing a given setting for some structural parameter or set of parameters. Crucially, each decision constrains subsequent decisions in accordance with known implicational universals: e.g., in determining whether the language has prepositions or postpositions, the pie chart is adjusted based on verb-object order in the language, as decided by a previous spin of the wheel.

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