Faculty spotlight: Ashwini Deo

Tracing the evolution of languages and empowering those who speak them

Languages, like the populations that speak them, gradually evolve and change over time. It is on the how and the why of these changes that TDAI affiliate Ashwini Deo, associate professor of linguistics, focuses her studies.

One might say that languages tend to evolve towards becoming either more semantically transparent or towards formal simplicity. “Speakers using any linguistic system are trying to communicate in the clearest way possible expending no more formal effort than necessary,” Deo says. This leads to changes in which linguistic systems evolve to introduce new meaning distinctions via new forms, or to reduce them by losing such forms. Sometimes, a linguistic system may evolve to introduce a new contrast, only to take it away at a later point in time, Deo says. “We are interested in such changes that are driven by the tension between formal complexity and semantic explicitness.”

In Indo-Aryan languages, for example—the major language family of the Indian subcontinent that includes Bengali, Hindi, and Punjabi—the languages of the Middle Indo-Aryan period lost grammatical marking for past tense about 1,500 years ago. “That doesn’t mean they can’t refer to events that took place in the past,” says Deo, “What it means is that they don’t have a dedicated tense form for such reference.” Rather, speakers were able to convey such meanings by relying on contextual information. The interesting fact is that these languages, over time, reintroduced past tense marking, thus regaining a grammatical contrast they had lost.

Understanding how languages and humans’ use of them change and evolve also tells us about human experiences and history. “One of the things we can understand through this work is the ways in which linguistic communities in close geographical contact have interacted with each other,” Deo says.

To understand changes over time, Deo and her colleagues study historical texts. “Indo-Aryan languages have a very rich literary tradition, starting around 2000 B.C.,” says Deo, who studies material produced starting from around 500 A.D. Almost none of this material has been digitized, and Deo and her associates have been working to get key texts digitized and processed. This is done through a data-processing firm in Mumbai, and the digitized texts are hosted on an OSU server.

Last year, Deo also traveled to India to collect audio recordings and conduct surveys of contemporary under-documented Indo-Aryan languages, data that will help create a corpus that can be used in the analysis of these languages. “The ultimate result allows scholars to test hypotheses about how these languages might have evolved to their current state, and thus benefits the larger research community,” she says. Her work is supported by an NSF CAREER grant she received in 2013, the foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty.

Working with such languages that are understudied, unwritten, and spoken by marginalized tribal populations has social effects, too. “This can be empowering for speakers of marginalized languages,” she says. “By documenting these languages and their linguistic traditions, we contribute in giving these languages and their speakers their rightful place in the Indian linguistic landscape.”

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