On Edge

Graziano Sava' grsava at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 12 18:11:50 UTC 2014

Dear all,

even though the discussion on the existence of language universals was
suspended some time ago, I still would like to share my opinion on this
subject in relation with language documentation and description, language
typology and other linguistic and non-linguistic human sciences.

In my opinion language universals do exist. The problem is at the state of
our knowledge of individual languages they cannot be discovered. The deny
of language universals by science experts is probably due to the constant
contradictions of proposed language universals that go beyond basic things.
And the more languages of the hundreds that have not been documented and
described so far (am I allowed to say 80% of the world's languages, without
mentioning HOW they are described?) the stronger will be the evidence
against supposed language universals, even those that are considered
absolutely untouchable at the present state of our knowledge.

The contradiction of hypotheses improve analysis is any scientific field.
However, due to the lack of comparative material, the search of language
universals opposing previous hypothesis is becoming such a constant that as
a linguist I wonder if the main message that we should transmit to the
scientific community at large is that we are also and mainly extremely busy
to document and describe languages worldwide and we are doing it not to
prove or disprove language universal but the show are languages are
different, individually.

Showing how language are is the duty of language documentation and
description. The search of language universals is the aim of language
typology. But the three disciplines language documentation and description,
search of language universals and language typology should be kept apart.
The creation of typologically-informed grammars that wants to prove
language universals does not make sense since grammar writing should result
in the formalisation of a unique coding system of meaning “ou tout se
tient” which is determined by the ancestral social, cultural, psychologic,
philosophic and genetic development of a speech community. Also language
typology should be differentiated by the search of language universal. For
the moment language typology seems to have as main aim to determine
language universals. It searches language types that converge. However, in
order to get renewed credit it should limit its scope differentiating types
that converge at an areal level with the help of sister linguistic
disciplines such as areal linguistics, genetic linguistics,
sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, as well as anthropology and
human genetics.

When one day, hundreds and hundreds years from now, all the languages of
the worlds will be duly described and we will know so well their
development that we can track how they change, linguistics, and language
typology in particular, will become a real prescriptive science. At that
moment we will also prove Chomsky's idea of the biological basis of
language, something that cannon be proven now, again, for the lack of

Graziano Sava'

2014-03-12 1:10 GMT+03:00 Balthasar Bickel <balthasar.bickel at uzh.ch>:

> Dear all
> In response to Frans’s worries about the visibility of universals
> research, I guess it is fair to say that universals in the classical sense
> are somewhat in a crisis. There are reasons:
> - absolute universals can’t be established by samples (see a nice recent
> paper by Piantadosi & Gibson in Cogn. Science), especially as we can’t be
> sure about the population from which our samples are drawn (e.g. what
> survived the human populations bottlenecks 20-60ky ago?)
> - absolute universals can be established by fighting counterexamples
> (re-analyzing them, explaining them away, adding additional conditions
> etc), but that has always had a touch of arbitrariness
> - absolute universals can be established by considerations of explanatory
> adequacy à la Chomsky, but that has become ever more problematic given
> recent demonstrations of learnability of CFGs (e.g. Perfors et al. in
> Cognition 2011) and given Chomsky's retreat to recursion in the
> mathematical sense, i.e. something which characterizes computation in far
> more cognitive domains than language and which allows for a vast array of
> formulating specific grammars and thereby for an equally vast array of
> possible proposals for formal universals.
> - statistical universals can be established based on samples, but there is
> a serious risk of formulating spurious correlations (see a nice study here
> by Roberts & Winters in PloS One 2013). It’s not enough to develop just-so
> stories and post-hoc explanations of the generalizations one happens to
> find in a sample. (Perhaps indeed many of us had had enough of this, and
> this might explain why we now see less proposals of implicational
> universals and the like than in the last century.)
> What is needed is detailed research on *causal* theories that predict
> specific systematic biases in how languages change, regardless of time and
> space, and robust quantitative methods that are able to capture such
> biases. No easy task, and a task that obviously requires more than
> linguistics. (I guess I agree on this with Wolfgang Schulze.)
> Balthasar.
> PS to avoid misunderstandings: I am not saying there can’t be solid
> universals like ‘languages don’t count’, to pick one of David’s examples. I
> just think we should do better than proposing descriptive generalizations.
> (But I am not going to enter the debate about science :-)
> -----------------------------------------
> http://www.comparativelinguistics.uzh.ch/bickel_en.html

Graziano Savà - PhD Leiden (African Languages and Linguistics)

Postdoc DoBeS-Volkswagenstiftung / Hamburg University

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