Field of Science

Do Language Universals Exist?

Is there an underlying structure common to all languages? There are at least two arguments in favor of that position. One is an in principle argument, and one is based on observed data.

Since Chomsky, many researchers have noted that language would be impossible to learn if one approached it without preconceptions. It's like solving for 4 variables with only 3 equations -- for those of you who have forgotten your math, that can't be done. Quine pointed out the problem for semantics, but the problem extends to syntax.

The data-driven argument is based on the observation that diverse languages share many properties. All languages, it is claimed, have nouns and verbs. All languages have consonants and vowels. All languages put agents (the do-ers; Jane in Jane broke the window) in subject position and patients (the do-ees; the window in Jane broke the window) in object position. And so on. (Here's an extensive list.)

Though many researchers subscribe to this universal grammar hypothesis, it has always been controversial. Last year, Evans and Levinson published an extensive refutation of the hypothesis in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. They don't tackle the in principle argument (it's actually tough to argue against, since it turns out to be logically necessary), but they do take issue with the data-based argument.

Rare languages

Evans and Levinson point out that at best 10% of the world's 7,000 or so languages have been studied in any great detail, and that the bulk of all work on language has focused on English. They claim that researchers only believe in linguistic universals because they've only looked at a relatively small number of often closely-related languages, and they bring up counter-examples to proposed universals found in obscure languages.

This argument cuts both ways. The correct characterization of a language is very, very hard. Much of the work I have been doing lately has been an attempt to correctly characterize the semantics of about 300 related verbs in English. Hundreds of papers have been written about these verbs over the last half-century. Many of them have turned out to be wrong --  not because the researchers were bad, but because the problem is hard.

That's 300 verbs in the most-studied language on the planet, and we still have work to do. Evans and Levinson are basing their arguments on broad-scale phenomena in extremely rare, poorly-studied languages.

A friend of a friend told me...

The rare languages that Evans and Levinson make use of are not -- as they readily acknowledge -- well-understood. In arguing against recursion as a linguistic universal, they bring up Piraha, a language spoken in a handful of villages deep in the Amazon. Without discussing recursion in detail, the basic claim is that there are sentences that are ungrammatical in Piraha, and these sentences are ungrammatical because they require recursion.

To my knowledge, there is one Spanish-Piraha bilingual speaker, in addition to two English-speaking missionaries who, as adults, learned Piraha. The claim that Piraha doesn't have recursion is based on the work of one of those missionaries. So the data that sentences with recursion are ungrammatical in Piraha is based on a limited number of observations. It's not that I don't trust that particular researcher -- it's that I don't trust any single study (including my own), because it's easy to make mistakes.

Looking back at English, I study emotion verbs in which the subject of the verb experiences an emotion (e.g., fear, like, love). A crucial pillar of one well-known theory from the 1990s was that such verbs can't be prefixed with "un". That is, English doesn't have the words unfeared or unliked. While I agree that these words sound odd, a quick Google search shows that unfeared and unliked are actually pretty common. Even more problematic for the theory, unloved is a perfectly good English word. In fact, many of these verbs do allow "un" prefixation. The author, despite being an experienced researcher and a native speaker of English, was just wrong.

Even assuming that you are correct in claiming that a certain word or sentence doesn't appear in a given language, you could be wrong about why. Some years ago, Michael Tomasello (and others) noticed that certain constructions are more rare in child speech than one might naively expect. He assumed this was because the children didn't know those constructions were grammatical. For instance, in inflected languages such as Spanish or Italian, young children rarely use any verbs in all possible forms. A number of people (e.g., Charles Yang) have pointed out that this assumes that the children would want to say all those words. Take a look at this chart of all the forms of the Spanish verbs hablar, comer and vivir. The child might be excused for never using the form habriamos hablado ("we would have spoken") -- that doesn't mean she doesn't know what it is.

In short, even in well-studied languages spoken by many linguists, there can be a lot of confusion. This should give us pause when looking at evidence from a rare language, spoken by few and studied by fewer.

Miracles are unlikely, and rare

Some centuries ago, David Hume got annoyed at people claiming God must exist, otherwise how can you explain the miracles recorded in the Bible? Hume pointed out that by definition, a miracle is something that is essentially impossible. As a general rule, seas don't part, water doesn't turn into wine, and nobody turns into pillars of salt. Then consider that any evidence you have that a miracle did in fact happen could be wrong. If a friend tells you they saw someone turn into a pillar of salt, they could be lying. If you saw it yourself, you could be hallucinating. Hume concludes that however strong your evidence that a miracle happened is, that could never be as strong as the extreme unlikelihood of a miracle actually happening -- and, in any case, the chance that the Bible is wrong is way higher than the chance that Moses in fact did part the Sea of Reeds.

(For those of you who are worried, this isn't necessarily an argument against the existence of God, just an argument against gullibility.)

Back to the question of universals. Let's say you have a candidate linguistic universal, such as recursion, that has shown up in a large number of unrelated and well-studied languages. These facts have been verified by many, many researchers, and you yourself speak several of the languages in question. So the evidence that this is in fact a linguistic universal is very strong.

Then you come across a paper that claims said linguistic universal doesn't apply in some language X. Either the paper is right, and you have to toss out the linguistic universal, or it's wrong, and you don't. Evans and Levinson err on the side of tossing out the linguistic universal. Given the strength of evidence in favor of some of these universals, and the fact that the counter-examples involve relatively poorly-understood languages, I think one might rather err on the other side. As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The solution

Obviously, the solution is not to say something about "extraordinary claims" and wander on. Evans and Levinson's paper includes a plea to researchers to look beyond the usual suspects and start doing more research on distant languages. I couldn't agree more, particularly as many of the world's language are dying and the opportunity to study them is quickly disappearing.

Evans, N. and Levinson, S. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (05) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999094X


Mark Johnson said...

Yes, I agree with Edward -- very nicely said.

Personally, I think that the arguments are strong that there must be some kind of universals in order for acquisition to occur. Presumably something special about humans enables humans to learn human languages, but stops other animals (even fairly smart ones like chimps) from doing so. But these arguments say fairly little about what these universals might be like -- they could be very linguistically-specific (e.g., X' theory) or they could be fairly general, e.g., some kind of non-linguistic inductive principle might be key (Chomsky dubbed it "discrete infinity", if I recall correctly -- what a horrible name).

I think it's especially interesting that we're starting to develop methods for evaluating universals. Bayesian methods for learning are starting to be powerful enough that we can encode putative universals as Bayesian priors in our models. We can compare the ability of two models to learn language, where one model contains the putative universal and the other one is identical except that it doesn't contain that universal.

Anonymous said...

> All languages put agents in subject position and patients in object position.

Ummmm ... except ergative languages. Maybe you meant "in clauses with transitive verbs"?

GamesWithWords said...

In the interests of keeping the post short, I was probably less exact than I should have been. Yes, like pretty much every other proposed universal, there are some potential counter-examples to universal linking rules, such as ergativity. In many cases, the ergativity may be syntactic in nature and solved with something like movement, which would like the universal intact. But there are also a few languages claimed to have "deep ergativity," which can't be solved by movement. These languages are rare and, for the most part, not well-studied, and my understanding is that the analysis of them as having deep ergative is controversial...which brings up the main point of the post again.

Also, I should clarify -- I was talking about transitive sentences. Intransitives necessarily work differently, since they don't have direct objects.

DFB said...

I know that this wasn't your point but you've confused me a little bit on your discussion of emotion verbs.

You said that a 1990's theory was dead wrong because sometimes emotion verbs CAN be prefixed with -un. Then you give examples of adjectives, not verbs, that have been prefixed: unfeared, unliked, unloved. I know these words are also sometimes used as verbs, but in the prefixed versions they are clearly adjectives.

Can you give better examples of emotion verbs being prefixed with -un and that remain verbs? Or are the examples you used really supposed to be verbs? I'm only familiar with their usage as adjectives.

GamesWithWords said...

DFB -- you're right, once you add the -un, you get an adjective. There's no clear way to explain what's going on without more words, so I've added an entire post -- see the next post in the series.

J.M. said...

Don't you think, that many researchers are trying helplessly to derive Language Universals from Speech practices by simply miss-presenting paradigm of Language as Speech?
Language is 1 or 1.5 million years older then any its Speech manifestation. Speech practice is only 50 - 45,000 old. Those entities are not the same as they viewed by C-and D- ppl.
Why do not consider third position: