Labex EFL Contrats

Axe 2. Experimental Grammar from a Crosslinguistic Perspective

Near Synonymy and Syntactic Variation (resp. Heather Burnett, Berit Gehrke, Tatiana Nikitina)

Although natural languages frequently possess grammatical means to form multiple syntactic structures expressing the same idea, it has often been claimed that, rather than allow absolute synonymy, speakers will end up associating these different syntactic structures with slightly different meanings (Bloomfield 1913, Goodman 1949, Cruse 1986, among others).
Although it is empirically well supported, the phenomenon of absolute synonymy avoidance seems to be at odds with another well-documented and pervasive empirical phenomenon: syntactic variation and change.
More specifically, the common idea that “natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum” (Cruse 1986: 270) appears to be challenged by the observation that change from one linguistic stage to another is characterized by intermediary periods of variation in which synonymous syntactic structures, called variants in the sociolinguistics literature, co-exist in the grammar and are used by speakers as alternative ways of saying the same thing (Labov 1966 et seq.).
Furthermore, research in variationist sociolinguistics has shown that speakers can exploit this meaning equivalence to both construct and express belonging to particular subgroups of their linguistic communities through distinctive patterns of alternation between variants.
Finally, depending on the social organization of the community, these periods of variation can result in the complete replacement of an older syntactic form by a newer syntactic form, i.e. a complete instance of language change.

The project explores the hypothesis that the tension between absolute synonymy avoidance, on the one hand, and syntactic variation and change, on the other, can be resolved through the development of a theory of near-synonymy; that is, the identification of a relation that holds between linguistic expressions which is weaker than absolute synonymy, yet is still strong enough for natural language speakers to treat linguistic expressions as equivalent for the purpose of making social distinctions and, ultimately, for diachronic replacement.

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Strand 3. Typology and dynamics of linguistic systems

RT1. Reconstruction, internal classification and grammatical description in the world’s two biggest phyla: Niger-Congo and Austronesian (led by L. Sagart, I. Bril & V. Vydrin)

The project aims at a better understanding of the history and the internal classification of the world’s two biggest language phyla, Niger-Congo and Austronesian.
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RT2. The Central Sudanic Languages: genetic unit or affinity group? (led by P. Boyeldieu)

The project intends to answer two main questions:
1. Are the Central Sudanic languages genetically related?
2a. If yes, do the same phonological, morphological and lexical criteria account for the innovations and do they allow us to sketch the history of the internal relations of the family?
2b. If no, what kind of historical processes can explain the numerous lexical and morphological similarities that we observe in these languages?
By shedding light on the evolution of the languages in Central Africa, the project aims at contributing to a better understanding of the phenomena of language change and of the little known history of the people in this area.

LC2. Areal phenomena in Northern sub-Saharan Africa (led by D. Idiatov & M. Van de Velde)

This project aims at a critical examination of the areality hypotheses involving the languages of northern sub-Saharan Africa, such as Güldemann’s (2008) macro-Sudan belt and Clements & Rialland’s (2008) Sudanic belt. The criteria already proposed used in the literature need to be refined and additional criteria need to be identified in order to evaluate the validity of the areality hypothesis, and if confirmed, to strengthen it.
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GD1. The Typology and corpus annotation of information structure and grammatical relations (led by S. Robert & M. Vanhove)

This project assembles experts of a broad range of geographically and genealogically distinct languages and language families (Afroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, Native American). We are investigating information-structure related phenomena and their interaction with language-specific phenomena like optional argument marking or hierarchical alignment, thereby paying particular attention to areal and diachronic factors.
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Strand 6. Language Resources

LR-4.8. Text corpora for Manding languages (Bambara, Maninka) (led by V. Vydrin)

This project aims at creating a corpus of written texts for Manding languages, especially for Bambara (Mali) and Maninka (Guinea). The corpus is freely available online at Based on the corpus, electronic dictionaries, electronic libraries of literature in Manding languages as well as grammatical and lexical studies will be produced.
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