BBC: Language universals challenged

Eduardo Ribeiro kariri at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 15 17:57:30 UTC 2011

Obrigado, Sidi, pela dica. O artigo da Nature vem dando o que falar na
lista de tipologia lingüística (  A
maioria dos comentários são desfavoráveis; um dos mais equilibrados,
na minha opinião, é o de Bill Croft (que tomo a liberdade de
transcrever abaixo).

Uma outra matéria sobre o assunto foi publicada na revista Wired
( Naturalmente, aqui se aplicam os "disclaimers"
tradicionais sobre a imprensa (que tende a exagerar o caráter
novidadeiro das conclusões científicas -- em lingüística,
especialmente se levam a sugestões de que Chomsky estaria equivocado).



---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bill Croft <wcroft at>
Date: Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 11:59 AM
Subject: Re: Dunn et al. on word order typology in "Nature"

We should not lose sight of what is good in Dunn et al.'s Nature
article. Many typologists, starting with Greenberg, have argued that
synchronic language universals are really just manifestations of
diachronic universals. The state-process model used by Dunn et al.
(see p. 5 of their supplementary materials) has been used by Greenberg
(1978) and Maslova (2000). Dunn et al.'s method (and also Maslova's)
allows us to take a major problem with sampling - historical
dependence - and exploit it to uncover valid language universals.
Using quantitative and statistical techniques will allow us to make
more precise generalizations and assign a degree of goodness of fit to
our theoretical models of typological universals.

Nevertheless, like others here, I am unconvinced of the results due to
problems with the way they apply the method. Dunn et al.'s analysis
(pp. 5-6 of the supplementary materials) treats two models as mutually
exclusive: an "independent" model, in which a word order switches
independently of other orders, possibly with a weighted preference for
one order; and a "dependent" model, in which two word orders are
linked and change together. These competing models are tested against
each phylogeny (family tree), with one or the other winning out
(*very* crudely, if branches with linked changes outnumber branches
with single order changes, then the test takes the word-order
correlation as justified for the tree). But this does not test the
model that most typologists assume; at best it tests the
oversimplified model of Theo Vennemann and Winfrid Lehmann from the
1970s, which reduced the diversity of word order in the world's
languages to just two types, VO and OV. (This is also basically the
generative head-ordering parameter.) But from Greenberg's original
paper (Greenberg 1966) onwards, most typologists have adopted a model
in which both single-order preferences (Greenberg's 'dominance') and
linkages (Greenberg's 'harmony') compete with each other and jointly
determine patterns of word order variation, as Matthew noted in his
last post.

This can be demonstrated statistically: Justeson and Stephens (1990)
did a log-linear analysis on a large synchronic language sample and
showed that the best-fit model included both dominance and harmony
factors. I presume there is a dynamic equivalent of log-linear
analysis that could be used to test the model that most typologists

Regarding the issue of lineage-specific vs. universal patterns: Keith
Poole and I had to deal with a similar question in using
multidimensional scaling to find universals of grammatical categories
(Croft and Poole 2008). There, the contrast was between
language-specific MDS models (as used, for example, by Barbara Malt
and her colleagues) and crosslinguistic MDS models. We argued that if
the regularities were culture-specific, then mixing in languages with
culturally-specific category structures would reduce the goodness of
fit of the MDS model; but if the regularities were crosslinguistic
(i.e. universal), then mixing together languages would improve the
goodness of fit of the model. (We found the latter.) The same
presumably would apply for word order patterns, mutatis mutandis. But
here the problem with the Dunn et al. result is that they test only
four lineages, representing only 7.5% of language genera (low-level
language families) in the world; the other 92.5% of language genera
occur in other lineages. Also, for many of the pairwise correlations
they test, including the two illustrated in their article, Bantu is
too shallow a family to exhibit any variation; and for the two
illustrated in their article, even in the other families very few
branches undergo a word order shift. So the empirical sample, though
well distributed geographically, is very small and has few independent
changes to evaluate. And here we hit a problem that all researchers on
language universals hit: our uncertainty about language phylogeny in
most parts of the world, especially for deeper families, but even for
subgrouping in accepted families. In this latter area, quantitative
methods are also being applied; but that is another story.

I think typologists should welcome this effort to marry phylogeny and
typology, even if we remain unconvinced of the particular result in
this paper.


Croft, William and Keith T. Poole. 2008. Inferring universals from
grammatical variation: multidimensional scaling for typological
analysis. Theoretical Linguistics 34.1-37.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. Some universals of grammar with particular
reference to the order of meaningful elements. Universals of Grammar,

Joseph H. Greenberg, 2nd edition, 73-113. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1978. Diachrony, synchrony and language
universals. Universals of Human Language, Vol. 1: Method and Theory,
ed. Joseph H.

Greenberg, Charles A. Ferguson and Edith A. Moravcsik, 61-92.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Maslova, Elena. 2000. A dynamic approach to the verification of
distributional universals. Linguistic Typology 4.307-33.
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