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Re: Language "laws"?

From:Tim May <butsuri@...>
Date:Thursday, October 14, 2004, 23:53
This isn't really so much a reply to Roger's post as a list of links
that might be useful to Rodlox and others interested in language

Roger Mills wrote at 2004-10-11 11:53:38 (-0400)
 > This site has a huge listing of "universals", near-universals,
 > possible universals etc etc.--
 > IMO "universals" should really be called _tendencies_, which may be
 > strong or weak. Almost none, I think, are absolute.

I quite agree.  The term "universal" is unfortunate.  However, it's
well established now, having been used at least since Greenberg's
(extremely influential) 1963 paper "Some universals of grammar with
particular reference to the order of meaningful elements"[1].  I don't
think we can rescue the terminology, as I've heard suggested, by
thinking of them as "universal tendencies" (which doesn't really mean
anything, AFAICT);  we should either not use the term, or accept that
it doesn't necessarily mean what it seems to.

A distinction is made between absolute universals, ie. those that
actually are, or claim to be, universally true, and statistical
universals, which only claim that one state of affairs is more
probable than another.  Most "universals" are statistical.  One
problem is that even if you don't find any counterexamples to a
universal in your survey, you can't tell empirically whether it's an
absolute universal or simply a statistical one that's sufficiently
unlikely that it doesn't show up in your sample.  (Even if you could
survey all the languages on Earth, that's only a sample taken from the
set of possible human languages.  Of course, whether trying to
delineate the set of possible human languages is an important or even
achievable goal depends on your theoretical framework.)  See Matthew
Dryer's paper "Why Statistical Universals are Better than Absolute

There's some notes on categorisation of universals, and on the
typological surveys of Greenberg, Hawkins and Dryer here[3].

As to an actual list of universals, the Konstanz archive is certainly
compendious, but it's not particularly readable.  As an introduction,
then, Dryer's "Word Order"[4] might be preferable among the sources
available online.  (A number of other papers downloadable from his
website[5] might also be worth reading.)