Matthew Dryer dryer at BUFFALO.EDU
Tue Sep 30 18:06:32 UTC 2003

I have a bit of a problem with Tom's claim "A statistical tendency is just
an intriguing pattern until you come up with a principled explanation for

There is a danger in viewing crosslinguistic generalizations as lacking
value if they are not explained. Whatever the problems of reliably testing
crosslinguistic generalizations, these problems are not nearly as severe as
the problems of testing hypotheses for why these patterns exist.  In fact,
the problems of testing explanatory hypotheses are so severe that they are
hardly worth discussing.  Because of this, we can always be much more
confident of the crosslinguistic generalizations than we can be confident
of our explanations for them.  For that reason, I see the crosslinguistic
generalizations as more valuable than their explanations.

This is not to say that a crosslinguistic generalization with an
explanation is not more valuable than a crosslinguistic generalization
without an explanation.  It just means, on my view, that having an untested
and probably untestable hypothesis for why the generalization exists
doesn't add a whole lot to the value of the generalization itself.

This is a reason why we should be wary of placing too much value on the
existence of an explanation for believing crosslinguistic generalizations.
If there is a problem with being confident that an crosslinguistic pattern
is real or not, it would be a mistake to think that having an untested
hypothesized explanation for the pattern adds much reason to believe that
the pattern is real.

Tom's comments seem to ignore completely the difference between coming up
with a hypothesis for why a crosslinguistic pattern exists and finding
relatively convincing reasons for believing that that explanation is right.
I think relatively few - if any - explanations of crosslinguistic patterns
have achieved the latter status.

Matthew Dryer

--On Saturday, September 27, 2003 10:01 PM -0700 Tom Payne
<tpayne at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU> wrote:

> Right! A statistical tendency is just an intriguing pattern until you
> come up with a principled explanation for it. And if the principled
> explanation explains more than one statistical tendency, all the better.
> For example, "iconicity" is one general principle that accounts for
> several structural statistical tendencies in the world's languages. If
> you posit a line of reasoning something like 1) speakers intend their
> messages to be interpretable, 2) iconicity makes messages more
> interpretable, and 3) language structure evolves under these pressures,
> then you can explain (or perhaps "motivate" is a better term) many
> statistical universals, such as: the tendency for phonologically larger
> structures to express semantically more complex concepts (I'm thinking
> of causatives, reflexives, etc.), certain kinds of split ergativity, and
> so forth.
> This is why I like to say I do Typological/_Functional_ linguistics.
> Typology is the descriptive part -- "What are the intriguing structural
> patterns out there?" But the job isn't finished until the patterns are
> explained according to some coherent and general principle, anchored in
> cognition, neurology, communication or some other domain independent of
> language structure itself.
> Tom Payne

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