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The myth of language universals

There are about 7,000 languages around the world. Cognitive scientists often assume that languages are all built to a common pattern. This widespread assumption seems to be a myth: Not language universals, but diversity can be found on almost every level of linguistic organisation, Stephen Levinson (codirector MPI for Psycholinguistics) and Nicholas Evans (Australian National University) argue in a comprehensive article in October's issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. It's entitled: The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science.
The myth of language universals

Singing in Yélî Dnye

In the target article Evans & Levinson summarise decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists. They show just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are. Instead, languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organisation. Humans are the only species with a communication system that is fundamentally variable at all levels. Evans & Levinson argue that the claims of a Universal Grammar are either empirically false, or misleading in that they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals. Chomskyan theories for example assume the universality of constituency, but many languages do not use this to organise their sentence structure).

Many languages scramble word order

Structural differences should be accepted for what they are, and integrated into a new, broadly evolutionary approach to language and cognition that places diversity at centre stage.

Figure 2

Diversity in human language opens up exciting new research directions for cognitive scientists, and confronts us with the extraordinary plasticity of the highest human skills.

Ongoing debate

The 23 responses to the controversial article vary from Tomasello's 'Universal grammar is dead' to the charge (by Pesetsky and others) that Evans & Levinson have failed to abstract sufficiently away from surface differences. Pinker & Jackendoff argue that the design space for languages is indeed restricted, requiring explanation in terms of universals - Evans & Levinson respond that the restricted design space is partly explained by the mere 100,000 years of cultural diversification that has taken place since modern humans left Africa.

Link to the article

Further commentary on the paper will appear by special arrangement in the journal Lingua.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 

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