List of unsolved problems in linguistics

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This article discusses currently unsolved problems in linguistics.

Some of the issues below are commonly recognized as unsolved problems; i.e. it is generally agreed that no solution is known. Others may be described as controversies; i.e. although there is no common agreement about the answer, there are established schools of thought that believe they have a correct answer.


  • Is there a universal definition of word?
  • Is there a universal definition of sentence?
  • Are there any universal grammatical categories?
  • Can the elements contained in words (morphemes) and the elements contained in sentences (syntactic constituents) be shown to follow the same principles?
  • How are domains for phonological processes related to syntactic structure? Do prosodic domains deviate from syntactic constituent structure?
  • Is it possible to formally delineate languages from each other? That is to say, is it possible to use linguistic (rather than social) criteria to draw a clear boundary between two closely related languages with a dialect continuum between their respective standard forms (e.g. Occitan and Catalan)?
  • How does grammaticalization function?
  • What constitutes grammatically correct language, as viewed by native speakers of that particular language, i.e. the problem of gradient well-formedness)?
  • How do creole languages emerge?
  • How does lexical substitution function given the potentially limitless number of different contexts, the limits of one's knowledge and the limits of one's understanding and usage of language?
  • How do idiolects and dialects emerge? Are there any common patterns in their development? Can they be quantitatively and qualitatively measured at all and if yes, how?

Philosophy of language[edit]



  • Language emergence:
  • Language acquisition:
    • Controversy: infant language acquisition / first language acquisition. How are infants able to learn language? One line of debate is between two points of view: that of psychological nativism, i.e., the language ability is somehow "hardwired" in the human brain, and that of the "tabula rasa" or blank slate, i.e., language is acquired due to brain's interaction with environment. Another formulation of this controversy is "nature versus nurture".
    • Is the human ability to use syntax based on innate mental structures or is syntactic speech the function of intelligence and interaction with other humans? The question is closely related to those of language emergence and acquisition.
    • The language acquisition device: How localized is language in the brain? Is there a particular area in the brain responsible for the development of language abilities or is it only partially localized?
    • What fundamental reasons explain why ultimate attainment in second language acquisition is typically some way short of the native speaker's ability, with learners varying widely in performance?
    • What are the optimal ways to achieve successful second-language acquisition?
    • Animals and language: How much language (e.g. syntax) can animals be taught to use? How much of animal communication can be said to have the same properties as human language (e.g. syntax)?
    • What role does linguistic intuition play, how is it formed and how does it function? Is it closely linked to exposure to a unique set of different experiences and their contexts throughout one's personal life?


Main article: Sociolinguistics

Computational linguistics[edit]

  • Is perfect computational word-sense disambiguation attainable by using software? If yes, how and why? If no, why? (This presupposes the solution to the unsolved problems in the other areas of linguistics as a basis.)
  • Is accurate computational word-sense induction feasible? If yes, how and why? If not, why?

Lexicology and lexicography[edit]

Main articles: Lexicology and lexicography



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  2. ^ Deacon, Terrence (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-571-17396-9. 
  3. ^ MacNeilage, Peter, 2008. The Origin of Speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) 2009. The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Dor, D., C. Knight & J. Lewis (eds), 2014. The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ a b Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World (16 ed.). Dallas: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-216-2. 
  7. ^ "Simulated Evolution of Language: a Review of the Field", Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 5, no. 2
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