On Edge

Mark Donohue mark at DONOHUE.CC
Fri Jun 13 01:49:42 UTC 2014

Dear Typologists, etc.,

One take on the existence of language universals that I've recently become
aware of is an incidental effect of some work reported in

Holman, Eric W., Søren Wichmann, Cecil H. Brown, and E. Anthon Eff.
2014. *Inheritance
and diffusion of language and culture: A comparative perspective.* *Social
Evolution & History* 14.2

(download from http://email.eva.mpg.de/~wichmann/wichmann_publ.html)

The essential finding (for this discussion) is that no languages are more
than about 65% different (Figure 1; I've tried to attach it here). Short of
some notion of universals, I don't see how we would account for this.


[image: Inline images 1]

On 13 June 2014 04:11, Graziano Sava' <grsava at gmail.com> wrote:

> 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
> grammars.
> 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
> http://www.volkswagenstiftung.de/index.php?id=172&L=1
> Personal links
> www.grazianosava.altervista.org
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dy8kfVR0rGo
> http://uni-hamburg.academia.edu/GrazianoSav%C3%A0
> Blog
> endangeredlanguagesblog.blogspot.com
> <http://endangeredlanguagesblog.blogspot.com/?spref=fb>
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