Language universals

Consideration of the concept of language universals, the distinction between absolute and statistical dependence samples from a universal language. The correlation between voiced fricatives is an absolute implicational universal. Lexical universals.

Рубрика Иностранные языки и языкознание
Вид реферат
Язык английский
Дата добавления 17.03.2014
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1. What is the language universals?

2. Kinds of universals. Absolute and statistical

3. Implicational universals

4. Explanations for universals

5. Lexical universals


1. What is the language universals?

Language universals are a set of principles which describe systematic patterns in languages -- in other words they describe what the world's languages have in common.

In 1966, in the book Universals of Language, the pioneering American linguist Joseph H. Greenburg published a list of 45 language universals regarding syntax and inflection. He provided a more detailed investigation of the topic in his four volume Universals of Human Language in 1978.

Language universals are statements that are true of all languages, for example: “all languages have stop consonants”. But beneath this simple definition lurks deep ambiguity, and this triggers misunderstanding in both interdisciplinary discourse and within linguistics itself. A core dimension of the ambiguity is captured by the opposition “absolute vs. statistical universal”, although the literature uses these terms in varied ways. Many textbooks draw the boundary between absolute and statistical according to whether a sample of languages contains exceptions to a universal. But the notion of an exception-free sample is not very revealing even if the sample contained all known languages: there is always a chance that an as yet undescribed language, or an unknown language from the past or future, will provide an exception.

language universal absolute lexical

2. Kinds of universals

First, we must make a basic distinction between absolute universals and statistical universals. Absolute universals refer to properties found in all languages, while statistical universals reflect important trends that are found in a predominant part of the languages of the world, but not necessarily in all. It is often difficult to ascertain what constitutes absolute universals, since we do not have access to reliable information about all languages in the world.

Absolute Universals

Absolute universals can be thought of as those aspects of one's descriptive metalanguage -- often called a “theoretical framework” -- that are necessarily referred to in the analysis of every language, i.e that constitute the descriptive a priori. Depending on one's a priori, this includes, apart from the morpheme, such notions as distinctive feature, constituent, argument, predicate, reference, agent, speaker, etc. In some metalanguages, the a priori also includes more specific assumptions, e.g. that constituents can only be described by uniform branching (all to the left, or all to the right), or only by binary branching, etc.

The status of absolute universals is controversial. For many linguists, especially in TYPOLOGY and HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS, absolute universals are simply the descriptive a priori, with no additional claim on biological or psychological reality. The choice between equally consistent universals/metalanguages -- e.g. between options (i) - (iii) in the example above -- is guided by their success in describing structures and in defining variables that capture distributional patterns -- an evaluation procedure comparable to how technical instruments for analyzing objects are evaluated in the natural sciences. In the morphology problem from before, typologists would most likely chose option (ii) -- because it allows defining a variable of stem-internal vs. affixal plural realization that has an interesting distribution .

Statistical Universals

Statistical universals are mostly motivated by theories of how languages develop, how they are used, how they are learned, and how they are processed. One such theory, for example, proposes that processing preferences in the brain lead to a universal increase in the odds for postnominal structures among verb- object languages.

Statistical universals take the same forms as statistical hypotheses in any other science -- for example, they can be formulated in terms of regression models. They can be tested with the same range of statistical methods as in any other science, and, again as in other sciences, the appropriate choice of models, population assumptions, and testing methods is an issue of ongoing research .

A central concern when testing statistical universals is to ascertain true globality, i.e. independence of area and family. Controlling for family relations poses another problem. Under standard statistical procedures one would draw random samples of equal size within each family and then model families as levels of a factor. However, over a third of all known families are isolates, containing only one member each. And picking one member at random in larger families is impossible if at the same time one wants to control for areas (e.g. admitting an Indo-European language from both Europe and South Asia). In response to this problem, typologists seek to ensure representativity of a sample not by random selection within families but by exhaustive sampling of known families, stratified by area. In order to then control for unequal family sizes, one usually admits only as data points per family as there are different values on the variables of interest .

In response to this, typologists now also seek to test universals by sampling language changes instead of language states -- a move that is sometimes called the “dynamization” of typology.

3. Implicational universals

Language universals may also be generalizations about properties of just a small selection of languages, so-called implicational universals.

For an implicational universal to make sense, there must also exist languages that have neither property A nor property B. Indeed, some languages lack both voiced and unvoiced fricatives.

The correlation between unvoiced and voiced fricatives is an absolute implicational universal. But there are also examples of statistical implicational universals. For instance, if a language typically places the main verb between the subject and the object, as in English The cat caught the mouse, its relative clauses usually follow the noun they modify, as in the cat that caught the mouse, but Chinese and a few other languages are exceptions, placing relative clauses before the noun they modify.

Examples of language universals:

All languages have vowels and consonants.

All languages have nouns and verbs.

All languages have demonstratives.

The subject tends to precede the object.

Question words typically occur at the beginning of a question.

Personal pronouns are usually marked for number.

Two explanations for language universals:

(i) Innate Universal Grammar

(ii) Functional and cognitive pressures that shape linguistic structures over


4. Explanations for universals

One way of trying to account for universals is the monogenesis hypothesis: the idea that all languages stem from the same proto-language and have inherited the same universal traits from this proto-language. But this explanation does not take us very far. It may or may not be true that all languages stem from the same proto- language somewhere in the distant past. But even if this should turn out to be true, this cannot explain the existence of many universals.

5. Lexical universals

Most lexical universals are approximate rather than precise. For instance, it has often been said that all languages have the concepts of 'black' and 'white', but this is only true in an approximate sense. In languages with few colour terms, such as the Indonesian language Lani, which only has two, the word for 'black' also covers dark and cool colours like green and blue, while the word for 'white' also covers light and warm colours like red and yellow. Thus, English black and Lani mili are only approximate equivalents, and the same is true of English white and Lani laambu.

Furthermore, most lexical universals are statistical rather than absolute. The concept of 'water', for instance, is probably found in most languages, but not in all. The closest equivalent in Japanese is mizu, which, however, is only used about cold water; another word o-yu is used for hot water The Yimas language of New Guinea has no word for 'water' at all and instead uses the word arm 'liquid', which may also


A language has lexicalized a concept when it uses a word (or some other lexical item) to represent this concept.




3. Holger Diessel - Language Universals (chapter 3)

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