Talk:Linguistic universal

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Syntactic universals[edit]

What are the (syntactic) universals in which Chomsky believes? I was very interested in this topic, since Chomsky is very interested in the order of words. Are there universals concerning the order of words in a sentence? I am sure Chomsky looked for them. There are languages in which the order of words is almost completely free, such as Latin, in which if you re-combine the words of a sentence in any order you want, you get the same sentence (with the same meaning). [User: laurian]]]:I believe that Chomsky has changed his mind on this, and regarding completely free languages (i.e. generally languages with case systems), another one being Warlpiri language it is thought that they have an underlying word order, and that phrases that stray from this word order are "marked". e.g. even in English you can have "the dog was eaten by the cat" (passivisation) and "the dog, the cat ate" (topicalisation)...

From [1]:
Chomsky’s position has changed with respect to whether UG should capture typological variation in word order:
Insofar as attention is restricted to surface structures, the most that can be expected is the discovery of statistical tendencies, such as those presented by Greenberg 1963. (Chomsky 1965: 118; emphasis added)
There has also been very productive study of generalizations that are more directly observable: generalizations about the word orders we actually see, for example. The work of Joseph Greenberg has been particularly instructive and influential in this regard. These universals are probably descriptive generalizations that should be derived from principles of UG. (Chomsky 1998: 33; emphasis added)
- FrancisTyers 13:41, 15 December 2005 (UTC)
As far as I'm aware Chomsky's always thought that UG ought to capture typological variations in word order, though the appropriate technical devices for doing so have of course been debated. On the other hand, he did suggest in Aspects that some free word order phenomena might result from a general principle that stylistic reordering is permitted up to ambiguity, so I guess you might argue that such a principle wouldn't be part of UG. Cadr 10:29, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

Rising pitch[edit]

What about rising pitch for questions? In all languages that I know of, where pitch doesn't alter meanings, and hence is able to use, a rising pitch always denotes a question... In Chinese, the only tonal language I have knowledge of, a question is constructed with a special word with a rising pitch added to the main sentence, like "he-buy-bread"=statement "he-buy-bread-question word"=question.

It seems to be widespread, yes, but not universal. In Ewe, a tonal language from Ghana-Togo, a low-tone suffix -à is added to questions, e.g. e-fó-à (you-wake.up-Q) 'did you wake up?'. — mark 08:55, 3 September 2005 (UTC)
OK, I thought that was basically an inherent way of human thinking, but the Ewe example might prove otherwise...
"The vast majority of languages indicate questions with a rising pitch.(?)" I believe Chinese would qualify here, but possibly the statement might need some fact-checking and rewriting.

1. Not only Chinese but almost all sino-tibetan and austro-asian languages (such as Vietnamese) are tonal. It is expected that they don't form questions with rising pitch. As far as I know, Chinese uses a particle, "le", at the end of the sentence to indicate question. 2. Another example is Japanese, which is a _non-tonal_ language, in which all syllabs are pronounced with equal emphasis (and all words). Interrogative sentences are formed by adding the particle "ka" at the end of an affirmative sentence. No raising pitch; Europeans who learn Japanese are corrected when they try to raise the pitch when asking questions. [User: laurian]

I think it's lax, but entirely possible to repeat statements in an interrogative way, (such as -I like Madonna. -Madonna?, -This car is fast! -Fast?) in Japanese, and if so, you do it with a rising pitch, also the particle 'ka' has a rising pitch. In Chinese, the particle 'le' has a rising pitch, although I agree that icould be stretching things.惑乱 分からん 07:40, 10 February 2006 (UTC)
By the way, even though Japanese isn't a tonal langauge, it clearly has a pitch accent (which, in a few cases, could distinguish between meaning). 惑乱 分からん 14:05, 22 April 2006 (UTC)
It needs some fact-checking indeed. I'm not sure if my Ewe example truly is a counterexample; most languages do seem to differentiate questions from declarative utterances by use of high pitch somewhere in the sentence. Though I'm sure I'll be able to find an Ewe question in which all lexical tones are low (i.e., a question which uses a Low tone pronoun and a Low tone verb), that doesn't necessarily prove the generalization wrong; there may well be some intricate intonation-thing going on at the same time. In fact, I expect there is. Have to read up a bit on this. — mark 19:39, 3 September 2005 (UTC)
The question particle in Chinese is 吗, "ma", not 了, "le", which is more of an aspect marker. My experience is that the Chinese very well can raise the pitch at the end of a question. However, this is no proof that raising pitch would be a universal. It could be influence from and to other people during the past thousands of years. Mlewan 11:03, 18 March 2006 (UTC)
You're correct about Chinese, sorry. (The other point is likely correct, as well.) 惑乱 分からん 14:02, 22 April 2006 (UTC)


Is the terminology section really correct? It seems to be at least misleading. To my knowledge one distinguishes between absolute and statistical universals (the latter ones are often called tendencies). While absolute universals apply "universally", tendencies may have exceptions. While the terminology basically states exactly what I've just written, the first sentence also implies that the opposite of an absolute universal is an implicational universal. This is not correct. If a language universal is implicational or non-implicational has nothing to do with it being absolute or statistical. I reverted the last edit and add a little clarification. Some clean-up to bring the second paragraph in line with the first one is still needed. 22:41, 1 November 2005 (UTC)

Aye you're right - FrancisTyers 23:32, 1 November 2005 (UTC)


"All languages have pronouns."

Except for ones that don't have them as a separate grammatical category, like Japanese, where there are some nouns which function kinda like pronouns, but not quite.

Don't we have a better example. Taw 18:06, 11 December 2005 (UTC)

Are there actually any linguistic "universals" without counterexamples? Geoffrey Sampson in "Educating Eve" claims there are none except "all languages have nouns and verbs", and that even that one is dubious. This strikes me as a bold claim, but I've never seen it refuted. So is there such an example? rspeer 05:21, 12 December 2005 (UTC)
There is a controversy among Mande linguists concerning the noun-verb distinction. It started with Maurice Delafosse insisting on l'indistinction foncière du nom et du verbe (as cited in Manessy 1962:57). The issue is roughly that in Mande languages, you can use all 'verbs' without any morphological derivation as 'nouns'. Linguists who have tried to solve this problem by conflating the noun and verb categories at some theoretical level include Manessy (1962) for Mande in general, Creissels (1983) for Mandinka, Kastenholz (1987) for Koranko and Blecke for Tigemaxo, one of the Bozo languages. — mark 07:56, 12 December 2005 (UTC)
Well, you've just made Sampson's claim stronger. But my question went the other way. Are there any linguistic universals that actually are universal? rspeer 15:13, 12 December 2005 (UTC)
I don't know of any absolute universals with no counterexamples. However, even though nouns and verbs can blend into each other and other word classes in some languages, they are certainly present in some form in all languages. Language is there to describe events and objects around us, so there necessarily are words to describe events and objects. Still, this is no proof that they are built into our brain. (They could be, but this is not a proof for it.) It may simply be something reality imposes on us. I have yet to see even a computer language that someone managed to create without nouns (classes, objects, variables) or verbs (events, functions, commands). Mlewan 11:13, 18 March 2006 (UTC)

IIRC all languages have certain vowels. Can't remember which ones... - FrancisTyers 09:33, 10 February 2006 (UTC)

I think the open front unrounded vowel is the most common vowel sound worldwide, most languages that lacks it has an open back unrounded vowel, as far as I understand it. 惑乱 分からん 10:38, 10 February 2006 (UTC)

External links[edit]

This link has died:

I'll check to see if there's a newer one. RJCraig 17:03, 7 January 2006 (UTC)

Give me some universals[edit]

This is important. I'd like to edit these pages to discuss the debate somewhat, and not simply say that linguistic universals exist and are evidence for nativism. Can someone point me to a generally accepted source that names at least one linguistic universal (preferably not a conditional)?

Basically, I don't know the other side very well, and I don't want to skew the POV with a weak argument for nativism.

rspeer / ɹəədsɹ 14:56, 10 February 2006 (UTC)

A few points:
  • Even if genuine universals exist, it does not logically follow that that's evidence for nativism (in the 'hard-wired syntax box' sense). They might just follow from general features of human cognition in conjunction with some other factors (say, our communicational needs and our environment).
  • At what level do you want universals? Something tells me that you don't want to hear trivialities like 'in every natural spoken language, use is made of speech sounds to convey messages'.
  • Why do you only want universals? What's wrong with tendencies?
mark 15:52, 10 February 2006 (UTC)
Whether it logically follows or not, universals tend to be held up as evidence for nativism. It's true that this article doesn't say so very strongly, actually.
Tendencies are okay, but
  • They indicate more that language evolves to meet our communicational needs, not that such things are hard-wired in
  • The article is called "Linguistic universal", which implies that universals exist, so an example would be nice
And of course I'm not looking for trivialities or tautologies.
What I'm looking for is something to support the belief -- which seems to be held by most of the scientific community -- that we know certain facts about grammar before we are born, which either take the form of hard-wired universals or "switches" with a couple of settings, and learning a first language flips all of these switches. Universal grammar is probably the article I want to work on; I've put a mention of Geoff Sampson (who I thought for a while was someone else) there, but I'd like to rewrite it to be less waffly, clearly express both viewpoints, and include other opponents to nativism. I've got some reading to do.
But I can't clearly express the nativist viewpoint yet. It sounds like total nonsense to me, but perhaps I've only heard straw man arguments for it, and there's a stronger argument I haven't heard.
The impression I get is that linguistic nativism is taken as fact because it has been stated by some very influential, respected, and loud linguists (like Chomsky), not because it has been demonstrated scientifically. This would be a sad position for science to be in, so I want to see why this isn't true. rspeer / ɹəədsɹ 17:07, 10 February 2006 (UTC)
See above for some recent and older words from Chomsky. I think that his ideas do tend to get misrepresented. - FrancisTyers 17:18, 10 February 2006 (UTC)
The problem is that the question "what universals are there?" is almost impossible to answer in a way that would satisfy a non-linguist's general curiosity (or indeed, the general curiosity of a linguist who wasn't familiar with Chomsky's work). The sort of universals proposed by Chomskyan linguists are very abstract. For example, that there are certain restrictions on the argument structures of verbs; that locality conditions on movement are universal; that binding requires c-command; that all languages are structure-dependent. It's not possible (and Chomskyan linguists have never suggested that it's possible) to state universals pretheoretically, referring only to immediately apparent, surface characteristics of language. And of course, once you start stating universals theoretically, postulating abstract structures and conditions, it's more difficult to say whether or not the universals exist. No theory accounts for 100% of the data, so in a trivial sense none of the universals ever postulated in the history of Chomskyan linguists has been found to exist. But then, it's unreasonable to expect 100% coverage from any theory, so this doesn't mean that Chomsky is wrong in any interesting sense. To give a concerete example of an interesting and (I think) so-far unfalsified universal, consider the following idea from Chomsky's Lectures on Government and Binding (1981, pg. 98).
[Not a quote]
The verb "plead" in English can be used in sentences such as "John pleaded with Bill to leave", where the subject of "leave" is understood to be John. There cannot be a verb (call it PLEAD) such that "John PLEADed with Bill to leave" is understood with to mean something like "John exhorted that Bill should leave". In other words, In a structure "X verbed [PREPOSITION Y] [EMBEDDED_CLAUSE]", Y must be an argument of the verb in the main clause.
The universal above is predicted by two abstract principles of grammar: the projection principle and the theta-criterion. These abstract principles are the real universals studied by Chomskyan linguists. Phenomena such as the existence or not of pronouns or other parts of speech, the existence of particular kinds of verb, etc etc, are epiphenomenal. To repeat, the universals are stated in theoretical terms, not as check-lists of properties which you can simply tick off for any given language. This is why it's so hard to just give a list of Chomskyan universals which would (1) mean something to the average person and (2) be convincing. You may therefore choose not to be convinced, and I'd sympathise, but it's somewhat unfair to do so before you know what exactly it is that you're not convinced of.
Having said all this about universals, it's important to recognise the following: Chomsky has never based his argument for universal grammar on the existence of universals. Rather, his epistemological argument for UG (poverty of the stimulus) implies that there ought to be universals of some kind of another, and Chomskyan linguists spend some of their time looking for these universals. You'll rarely find any Chomskyan using the following form of argument: "Oh my, look at this whopping great list of universals, there clearly must be a UG". Instead, they say, "Gosh, isn't it difficult to learn a language, babies must have an innate knowledge of language in order to do so (and it follows that there should be linguistic universals)." Chomsky's always maintained that on the face of it, languages do indeed vary enormously and without limit.
Just thought, if you really just want a list of universals stated in (more-or-less) nontheoretical terms, you should look at Greenberg's classic work. Cadr 10:13, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

Word for "body"[edit]

Several languages, for example Tidore and Kuuk Thaayorre, lack a general term meaning 'body'.

I think that's a lot more common. My dialect of German doesn't have such a word either, for simple lack of need. One would think that the presence of Standard German, which has two such terms, is the reason for this, but I can't think of a situation where I'd need to talk about a body (and would borrow one of the Standard German terms)...

David Marjanović | email adress masked | 00:26 CEST | 2006/10/28

(I masked your email adress, the bots are just too clever these days.) Which dialect of German is that, if I may ask? As for the question how common this pattern is, as far as I know there are no statistics on this. Tidore and Kuuk Thaayorre differ from your situation in that there isn't some 'standard dialect' which does have a word for "body". I find it interesting that you can't think of a sitation where you'd need to talk about the body. If you think about the burial of a deceased person, do you feel the person as a whole is buried, or only his body? How would you describe your understanding of the English word body? And the Standard German Körper, for that matter? — mark 08:01, 28 October 2006 (UTC)

Truly universal or human-universal?[edit]

Do theories about linguistic universals talk about the non-human intelligences that we will encounter, and those that we will create, in the future? Or do they only claim that their universals are "universals" for humans? It makes quite a bit of sense to me that encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life would have verbs and nouns, but some of the other universals might be questionable, if seen in a wider perspective than what average person is likely (and able) to take. Should the article deal with this, in some form, or should Wikipedia remain humanocentric until it is overtaken by real world developments? --Peter Knutsen (talk) 13:50, 30 April 2009 (UTC)

I seem to recall some time ago reading a science fiction author speculate that beings who live on very different time scales from us might not have need for a verb/noun distinction. To a being that lives for thousands or millions of years, the existence of an object that we might see as a noun, such as a table, might better be described as a process, a verb, by which atoms/molecules etc are momentarily brought together and then slowly drift apart. Such a being might even see atoms themselves as a process that will eventually end, an analysis that is borne out by modern physics (see proton decay). Unfortunately I can't remember where I read this. As for serious linguistic work, I doubt there is much discussion about it. It's an interesting idea though. -- (talk) 20:43, 10 November 2010 (UTC)
See science. Palpalpalpal (talk) 10:32, 11 November 2010 (UTC)
I think this particular science-fiction speculation suffers from misinterpreting the point of the verb/noun distinction. Verbs need not designate processes (think of stative verbs such as to lean or to surround), and nouns can designate processes just as well (such as flight, disintegration or growth). From cognitive linguistics, I know an alternative description of verb-like elements as relations and noun-like elements as references.
However, the general point that a true "universal" could be defined so extensively that it could even cover non-human languages (possibly even certain animal languages), which I consciously disregarded below – and by the way, I disregarded sign languages, too –, is completely correct. "Universal" encompasses quite a lot, which is to say a real, real lot, to put it mildly. --Florian Blaschke (talk) 01:25, 14 November 2013 (UTC)

Where is the list of them?[edit]

Where can we find a list of those universals? Where is, for instance, Greenberg's list? Or it can not be used in Wikipedia due to copyrights? Alone Coder (talk) 07:10, 4 July 2009 (UTC)

Impossibility to prove universals[edit]

I'd like to point out that not only are typical studies extremely far from even making claimed universals believable, but to prove a true universal is absolutely impossible in the absence of complete and absolutely perfect records and analyses (nevermind that even analyses can differ and that even seemingly simple questions such as how many vowel phonemes a language has can be hotly contested – do Circassian and Abkhaz really have less than three vowel phonemes, and – a notoriously thorny problem – how to analyse Nuxalk in terms of syllable division?) of every speech form ever spoken by any group of humans (and even then you'd run into problems of definition – where is the temporal cut-off for "human"? Does Neanderthal speech count? What about future languages? Hypothetical future human–animal/alien/robot/whatever hybrids? etc.), as there can always be an exotic language that is documented but which you missed, or a language that is undocumented (or the feature in question could happen to be undocumented, even though it exists, or used to exist, but possibly only extremely marginally) or even a dialect that may be documented or not which may be a counterexample, and the speech form in question could be anything from vigorous over moribund over recently extinct to long extinct. There are so many possibilities, and so many possible counter-examples. How do you go about proving that something you claim has no exceptions if there is no way you can examine all the examples and even if you could, you cannot even tell if a possible counterexample even counts due to unclear definitions and demarcation problems?

It seems to me that most (possibly all) universal-hunters have no concept of how bold and problematic and how hard to demonstrate a claim of universality really is. They don't even bother to define what they mean by "universal", which means it remains unclear what a possible counter-example would even look like. They do not even recognise the methodical problems involved. And that, I dare say, is the kiss of death to any claim you may wish to make to being scientific. I laugh at any study whose sample consists of 10 languages, half of which are major written, standardised Indo-European languages traditionally spoken in Europe. This study (whose topic is so amusing it's almost igNobel-worthy), for instance, cites 31 languages but examines only 10 in detail: Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Icelandic, Russian, Mandarin, Lao, Siwu, Cha'palaa, and Murrinh-Patha. This sample is not even representative either typologically, areally or genetically; very far from it. Moreover, it encompasses far fewer than 1% of all languages currently spoken in the world, regardless of how you count or estimate that number. Arguably even vastly fewer.

To conclude, the presumption that you could ever prove a true universal in any meaningful sense, as opposed to just tendencies (however strong), is pure hybris and vastly underrates the difficulty of the task. Universals cannot be proved, they can only be disproved; willing or unwilling, Rara and Rarissima are the worst nemesis of the universal-hunter, and can be said to even put the nail in the coffin for the universal-hunting endeavour. --Florian Blaschke (talk) 00:53, 14 November 2013 (UTC)

Oh, and when it comes to contested analyses, there are of course the controversies about Pirahã – does it really have no embedding nor numerals? Regardless of Everett's own (rather opposite, exoticist) bias, the danger of circularity (either Pirahã must have embedding after all, a priori, so let's try and analyse the data until we manage to squeeze the desired feature out of the data somehow, any way, by hook or by crook, and if we nevertheless fail, clearly it is not a "normal" language and can simply be disregarded) is patent when you believe overly strongly in your universals ... --Florian Blaschke (talk) 09:54, 16 November 2013 (UTC)

Also, why exclude constructed languages, which broadly includes formal languages (programming languages, Lambda calculus, even mathematical formulas in general)? This restriction seems arbitrary. At the very least, all languages, whether natural or constructed, seem to have (morpho-)syntax, or syntactic structures, and lower levels of structure corresponding to phonetic/phonotactic stucture (duality of patterning).

That said, the conclusion that a syllable as nondescript as [ə], [ʔə], [ɦə] or similar (can you think of a more minimal syllable?) is widespread in natural languages as a hesitation marker isn't exactly a surprising insight ...

More dangerous circularity lurks: "All languages have a hesitation marker huh!" – "Well, ASL does not." – "But ASL is not a real language! It's a sign language!" – Sound familiar? --Florian Blaschke (talk) 16:25, 9 January 2014 (UTC)

These seem all reasonable points. By the way, on this 'universal syllable', there is an FAQ which appears to cover some of the points you're raising here. Louise C. Harrison (talk) 12:45, 10 January 2014 (UTC)