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Concluding remarks

Linguists standardly use synchronic distributional evidence to make assumptions both about the psychological mechanisms that lead speakers to create particular constructions, and about the components of a speaker's mental representation of the various constructions of their language, including for example the prototypes for particular categories. Yet, there are two major senses in which synchronic distributional patterns cannot be taken as evidence for assumptions about a speaker's mental organization. First, individual distributions may be the result of diachronic processes not based on the psychological principles that can be postulated based on the synchronic observation of the distribution. Hence the distribution provides no evidence that these principles are those that lead speakers to create the relevant constructions in the first place. Second, the same synchronic distribution may be the result of different diachronic processes in different cases. These processes may originate from psychological mechanisms, for example mechanisms of form-function recombination in particular contexts (as is often the case in grammaticalization processes), but these mechanisms are not the same in each case, so the synchronic distribution cannot be taken as evidence for any of them in particular.

Thus, for example, the same alignment patterns may originate from different grammaticalization processes, or from the reanalysis of different types of argument structure in a source construction, and all of these processes are independent of any specific property of the relevant argument roles that can be defined synchronically. Likewise, the use of overt morphology to encode specific functions of lexical roots may be the result of different processes of grammaticalization unrelated to any asymmetry between these functions that may be postulated on synchronic grounds.

This does not mean that cognitive explanations for particular distributional patterns should refer exclusively to the diachronic processes that give rise to these patterns. Diachronic processes provide evidence for particular psychological principles in that they reveal that these principles lead speakers to create novel constructions, and hence play a role in a speaker's mental organization. However, it is possible that a speaker's acquisition and use of the existing constructions of their language are governed by principles different from those that give rise to the relevant constructions in the first place. For example, independently of how the relevant constructions originated, speakers might indeed classify different uses of a lexical root as prototypical vs. nonprototypical instances of the same grammatical category (see, for example, Bybee & Moder (1983) for experimental evidence in support of a similar hypothesis for morphological classes). Also, there might be general principles that play a role in a speaker's creation of novel constructions, but are not revealed by individual diachronic processes in themselves. For example, in theory, different grammaticalization processes leading to the development of markers for A or O arguments could all reflect a more general tendency to distinguish between co-occurring arguments. All of these principles, however, cannot be inferred directly from synchronic distributional patterns, and should be investigated independently of these patterns.

List of Abbreviations

A

actor

M

masculine

ACC

accusative

NARR

narrative

AUX

auxiliary

NEG

negation

CONN

connective

NOM

nominative

CONSEQ

consequential

NOMLZR

nominalizer

COP

copula

NONHUM

non-human

CSL

cislocative

OBJ

object

DAT

dative

OBL

oblique

DEF

definite

PAST

past

DEM

demonstrative

PERF

perfect

DIR

directional

PL

plural

DISJ

disjunctive

POSS

possessor

ERG

ergative

PTCPL

participle

F

feminine

SG

singular

GEN

genitive

SUBJ

subject

IMPFV

imperfective

SUBORD

subordinative

INF

infinitive

TAM

tense/aspect/mood

INSTR

instrumental

U

undergoer

LOC

locative

 
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