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Creuset of Ideas
» On Universality


On Universality

2006-01-24 @ 12:29 » Français

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Warning: this post talks about theoretical linguistics and could be quite boring for some.

I talked somewhere else of people’s propensity to accept at face value what their teachers tell them at the beginning of their professional training (e.g., the first couple of years of college) and never after challenge these assumptions. These statements become an integral part of their scientific thoughts for the many years to come. This was observed by Kuhn and I have seen it often enough in my studies. This “habit” probably comes from our need for certainty and gives a stable basis to science (we wouldn’t go far if we kept challenging everything).

[Aside: I remember a friend telling me of this professor who told his students, during the first class of the year, “I’m going to say a lot of things this semester. Most will be true, but some might be false. It’s up to you to find out which.”]

Surfing along, I stumbled upon the website of a linguists who teaches, amongst other subjects, an introductory course on syntax. What I found particularly interesting is the section of the first course (Foundational issues) on Universal Grammar.

This is what it says (forgive the lengthy quote):

The structure dependence of linguistic rules is a general principle of the human language faculty (the part of the mind/brain that is devoted to language), often also referred to as Universal Grammar, especially when considered in abstraction from any particular language. There are two sources of evidence for this. First, as we have seen, the syntactic rules that children form in the course of acquiring their first language, even when they are not the rules that adults use, are structure-dependent. Second, even though structure-independent rules are logically possible and computationally tractable, no known human language actually has rules that disregard syntactic structure. For instance, no known human language has either of the computationally very simple question formation rules in:
a. To form a question, switch the order of the first and second words in the corresponding declarative sentence. (The girl is tall. > Girl the is tall?, or The blond girl is tall. > Blond the girl is tall?)

b. To form a question, reverse the order of the words in the corresponding declarative sentence. (The girl is tall. > Tall is girl the? or, The blond girl is tall. > Tall is girl blond the?)

To sum up: Language is a structured system (which shouldn’t surprise anyone). Another example of universals has to do with recursion:

An example of a substantive universal is the fact that all languages have indexical elements such as I, here, and now. These words have the special property that their meanings are predictable in the sense that they denote the speaker, the speaker’s location, and the time of speaking, but that what they refer to varies depending on who the speaker is.
a. She won.

b. The Times reported that [she won].

c. John told me that [the Times reported that [she won]].

Recursion is a basic principle of complex systems. It’s the easiest way to build a highly productive device from a small number of components and processes. It can be observed everywhere in nature. Language is thus a recursive system, which implies structure (through the interplay of sets and subsets), which therefore explain the previous universal.

But what I particularly like are parameters:

Formal universals like the structure dependence of linguistic rules and recursion are of particular interest to linguistics in the Chomskyan tradition. This is not to deny, however, that individual languages also differ from one another, and not just in the sense that their vocabularies differ. This means that Universal Grammar is not completely fixed, but allows some variation. The ways in which the grammars of languages can differ are called parameters.

One simple parameter concerns the order of verbs and their objects. In principle, two orders are possible: verb-object (VO) or object-verb (OV), and different human languages use either one or the other. As illustrated in (36) and (37), English and French are languages of the verb-object (VO) type, whereas Hindi, Japanese, and Korean are languages of the object-verb (OV) type.

I can only say “duh!” Is there any other possibility? The only one I can see is that order not be set, which, of course, is also anticipated by the theory: some parameters stay free, unset. How is this parameter necessary then, since it cannot be otherwise? Why should our brain (because that is what they claim) need this switch?

The last example given (preposition stranding) stems from certain theoretical assumptions, and therefore should not be used as a supporting argument (that would be going around in circles).

In all my studies, I have never found universals that didn’t flow from (1) logical necessity (e.g. word order), (2) features common to all complex systems (recursion), or (3) universals of human experience (which our linguist call substantive universals). But, to this day, there are still a good number of linguists and students who still doggedly believe this hypothesis which, presented soon enough, became unchallenged truth in their case.

What do you think?