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How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest


On the basis of five case studies from languages of the American Pacific Northwest, we argue that, at least in the areas of syntax and semantics, a scientific approach to the study of linguistic diversity must be empirically grounded in theoretically informed, hypothesis-driven fieldwork on individual languages. This runs counter to recent high-profile claims that large-scale typology based on the sampling of descriptive grammars yields superior results. We show that only a hypothesis-driven approach makes falsifiable predictions, and only a methodology that yields negative as well as positive evidence can effectively test those predictions. Targeted elicitation is particularly important for languages with a small number of speakers, where statistical analysis of large-scale corpora is impossible. Given that a large proportion of the world’s linguistic diversity is found in such languages, we conclude that formal, hypothesis-driven fieldwork constitutes the best way rapidly and efficiently to document the world’s remaining syntactic and semantic diversity.