(pseudo-)generalizations and explanations

Matthew Dryer dryer at BUFFALO.EDU
Sat Oct 4 21:35:24 UTC 2003

I'm not sure what I said that Martin took to suggest that my value
judgments represent absolute values.  My statement was intended solely as
an expression of my own subjective value judgment.  The attitude that
crosslinguistic generalizations (like descriptions of particular languages)
without explanation are of limited value is so widely held that I felt a
need to share the alternative view.

I have long thought it odd that the grammar of value judgments (e.g. "I
think that that is a good song") is the same (at least in English) as the
grammar of absolute statements (e.g. "I think that he is a tall man").


--On Thursday, October 2, 2003 8:47 AM +0200 Martin Haspelmath
<haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE> wrote:

> Many readers will have been shocked to read Matthew Dryer's statement
> about the "value" of explanations and generalizations:
> "I see the crosslinguistic generalizations as more valuable than their
> explanations.
> ... 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."
> I think it's useful to be reminded how speculative most of our deeper
> explanations are, but Matthew's statement sounds as if there was some
> absolute value attached to kinds of scientific activities. But plainly,
> different scientists pursue different goals. Many linguists are
> primarily interested in deeper insights into the nature of language and
> care about cross-linguistic generalizations only to the extent that they
> provide evidence for or against certain hypotheses or theories. This
> seems to be just as legitimate (and potentially valuable) as Matthew's
> attitude, which apparently takes for granted the value of
> cross-linguistic generalizations as a goal in themselves.
> As for the danger of "detecting" (and even publishing)
> pseudo-generalizations, I think we'll just have to live with it (nobody
> is pefect). If we say that a generalization is significant at the 0.05
> level, it means that there is a 95% chance that this is not a
> pseudo-generalization. Instead of lamenting about the 5% failure rate,
> we should be proud of the 95% success rate. Compared to the presumable
> success rate of "micro-typology", which ventures to propose a universal
> generalization on the basis of four or five languages (and often less),
> 95% is a staggering figure.

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