Linguistic Universals and Particulars

Emmon Bach
SOAS, University of London
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
XVII International Congress of Linguists
Prague, 26 July 2003

in memoriam Ken Hale

Summary. Reflections, retrospective and prospective, about the activities and results of linguistics. Theory and description: methodological desiderata. Linguistic universals and linguistic particulars. Language extinction and the politics and ethics of linguistics. Linguistic creativity at the level of grammar creation and transmission: humans as members of the species homo loquens grammaturgicus.

  1. Some Truisms.

  2. Let me start with some general points and questions.

    1. Linguistics comprises many and varied activities.
    2. This should be a truism. But within the field there are conflicting views and emotions about what "real linguistics" is. (Hudson, 1972, gave an insightful picture of the hierarchies of prestige in academic and scientific disciplines.) Part of what I want to do here is call for mutual respect and cooperation among all who deal with language from various points of view, with various interests and various agenda.

    3. The world's languages are surprisingly similar and surprisingly different.
    4. Whenever I undertake the study of a "new" language I am constantly struck by two things:
      • How often the language conforms to my expectations;
      • How often I am surprised by some totally unexpected phenomena.
      The similarities and the divergences come in all levels and aspects of languages. Some samples will be given below in Section IV.

    5. Linguistic theory must account for the similarities and the diversities among languages.
    6. Linguistic theory needs lots of different languages.
    7. This is an obvious point: If only one language were spoken in the world, we would not know what features of the language were particular and which universal. There is a kind of argument that goes like this:

      Poverty of stimulus argument:Such and such a feature must be universal because it would be impossible for children to learn it on the basis of the evidence that they get. (To be found, for example, in many writings of Chomsky.)

      But without some independent knowledge of what can and can't be learned, this argument has no force (I believe I heard this counter-argument first from Barbara H. Partee, p.c.).

      The inescapable fact about language acquisition is that children and other people do learn languages, with their expected and unexpected, universal and particular characteristics.

    8. Where are all the languages going?
    9. Extreme language loss is a fact of our current life. There are two ways of responding to this fact, both important for linguists to think about:

      Two responses to language loss:
      1. record, document, analyze languages before they go, call this "documentary linguistics".
      2. try to stem the tide, call this "ecological linguistics";

      I assume that a third response -- ignoring it -- is not an option.

      With limited resources, there can be conflicts between the two aims. I am heartened by the fact that many younger linguists, equally adept in theory and in description, devote a large proportion of their time to community-oriented projects. The profession of linguistics must recognize and support such work.

    10. Do languages need linguistic theory?
    11. Obviously, they do not, in the simple sense. Can linguistic theories help attempts to revitalize and preserve endangered languages? Probably not. But if the aim is documentation, then there are properties of languages that generally will not be noted unless there is active invocation of the linguistic theories that have uncovered these properties.

    12. Do languages need linguists?
    13. Here I think we can give a more positive answer. There are many things that linguists can do which can contribute to the health of languages as well as contributing to the scientific aims of documentation. The main thing (in my opinion) to keep in mind here is the asymmetry between practical concerns and requirements and scientific practice. Linguists naturally tend to write for other linguists. To render their results, documentation and descriptions, useful for community aims, they should be prepared to present them in or translate them into a form that is accessible to nonlinguists. For example, with computers as a help it is easy to present dictionary and textual materials in an adequate practical orthography, or to have parallel representations using both practical orthographies and more arcane representations.

  3. A little history: Will the real linguist stand up?

  4. One of my first public presentations on linguistics was at the Ninth International Congress of Linguistics). I mention that not to brag on how old I am, but to give some sense of the temporal frame for my remarks. Unfortunately, my vision is narrower than it should be on this occasion, since I will be largely confining my purview to linguistics as it has gone on in North America. That Congress took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1962 (if my memory is correct). It was in the heady early years of the Chomskyan Revolution or Abberation. Noam Chomsky made a presentation in a plenary session. The second wave of young turks were mostly graduate students. So what has happened in the ensuing four decades?

    When I first became interested in linguistics, a few years before that, linguistics was all about going out and describing languages, especially languages that had not been documented. The "real linguist" was the fieldworker. The attitude toward "theory" was often apologetic. In the American linguistic scene, theory was mostly about procedures. Zellig Harris's 1951 book was originally called "Methods in Structural Linguistics." Its main motivation was theoretical. Harris wanted to be able to compare the structures of different languages. The point of the book was to try to ensure that different linguists could produce comparable or intertranslatable descriptions. Harris tried to define procedures of segmentation and classification by distribution that would lead to uniform results. Various choices -- for example, introducing "long components" -- would lead to certain kinds of statements, but in the ideal case, making different choices would lead to statements that could be converted readily into equivalent descriptions given other choices. Chomsky's early characterizations of what he called "taxonomic linguistics" was not far off the mark for his teacher Harris. I think it was pretty far off the mark for many other linguists, including probably most linguists in other parts of the world.

    What was most original in Chomsky's early work was the very idea of a generative or formal grammar, considered as a theory that would specify all and only the (infinitely many) expressions in a language, and assign structural descriptions to them. In a kind of Kantian turn, linguistic theory became then the study of the general structure of the grammars that would be just adequate to capture natural languages as formal systems. The idea that a language could be described as a formal system might well be called "Chomsky's thesis," even though, as is often the case, the idea was "in the air" at the time (Bar-Hillel, Harwood, Greenberg, Hockett, among others). A decade and a half later, linguistics saw the formulation of "Montague's Thesis," the idea that a natural language could be characterized as an interpreted formal system. ("Chomsky's Thesis" and "Montague's Thesis" were socalled in Bach, 1989.) Again, it was not just Montague who was coming up with this idea (Keenan, David Lewis, Parsons, among others).

    There is no doubt that these new conceptions of theory became dominant in American linguistics and beyond over the next decades. The cultural clash between proponents of the two images of what a "real linguist" is and does, was -- and still is -- vigorous, often acrimonious. The split went along with differences in fundamental views of what scientific activity should be (see Bach, 1965, for a then contemporary view of this philosophical disagreement).

    In 1967, MIT made a brilliant appointment, when Ken Hale, arguably the best field linguist of his era and a gifted theoretician as well, joined the department. I believe a good deal of mending between the two impulses or sides of linguistic research in the following decades can be attributed to his influence.

  5. Three kinds of language study.

  6. Think of a diagram, something like a schematic of the solar system. Ask: what is the Sun and what are the Planets? In one view, some language is in the center, arranged around it are various theories and subdisciplines. In the other, linguistic theory is the sun and the planets are languages and subdisciplines and related areas. These diagrams are supposed to represent crudely two kinds of linguistics: descriptive and theoretical.

    Now another truism:

    There is no such thing as a theory-free description.

    Whenever you undertake to describe a language you carry with you a set of expectations about what languages are like. These are really hypotheses about Universal Grammar. They may be completely formal: you expect phonemes, recurrent structures of form and meaning. They may include much more specific, but still formal, hypotheses about the form of a grammar for arbitrary languages. And they may include substantive hypotheses about the content of a language, at all levels: phonological, phonetic, syntactic, semantic.

    What are the results of these two kinds of activities?
    1. Primary Linguistic Description
    2. Primary descriptions of languages are the basis for everything else:

      There is no such thing as a language-free theory of language.

      Descriptive linguistics traditionally results in descriptive grammars, dictionaries, texts, recordings -- nowadays, audio and video, one hopes. In the United States and Canada, the great descriptive grammars, dictionaries, and text collections of the late nineteenth and twentieth century are the heritage of Boas and his tradition. True, there are many questions left unanswered in the products of this stream, but there is not nothing: the results are a rich mine for successive workers. Think, for example, of the careers that have been built on the grammars and text collections of this heritage.

    3. Linguistic Theory
    4. The results of linguistic theorizing are theories or bits of theories (hypotheses). In line with the schematic I drew in your minds, languages are drawn upon to give evidence for or against some point of theory or, in grander attempts, a whole theory. So the typical result of a graduate work in linguistic theory might be a dissertation with a title like: "The ABC Principle in Language X," where X might be some language that had not been dealt with in depth by theoreticians. Such a study might be followed by a whole string of papers or dissertations taking the same material to argue against the ABC Principle in favor of the A'B'C' Principle, or for a whole new approach or theory. But usually there is no new data, often not even checking of the original sources, and only in rare cases are these studies based on new primary work.

      It would seem that both of these activities would share a concern about accuracy, "getting the facts straight." This concern for accuracy is central to a third kind of actitivity.

    5. Philology
    6. Besides the activities just mentioned -- descriptive and theoretical linguistics -- there is another kind of study devoted to languages. Unlike those two disciplines, philology is devoted not to uncovering the system of a language or coming to understand the general abilities of humans to acquire and use such systems. It is devoted rather to the products of users of the languages, memorable products for the most part. The name is apt: `lovers of the word.'

      The proper cultural matrix for philological efforts should be the community most directly associated with the texts or oral traditions in question. But in the colonialistic and post-colonialistic world in which we live, it is more often than not up to linguists from outside these communities to do the primary work that is a necessary foundation for such activity. Why is this so? It is clearly because the healthy functioning of the native traditions of story-telling or recording have become debilitated for reasons that are too familiar to need rehearsing. Languages and cultures change and sometimes die as a matter of human history. But sometimes they are killed.

      Ken Hale's life work on many languages was distinguished by one insistent maxim: the best work on any language could only come from native speakers of that language. Therefore, it was incumbent on the foreign linguist to try as hard as possible to teach as well as take, to treat speakers of the language not as "informants" or "consultants" but as fully equal co-workers, linguists in their own right.

      The activity of fieldwork, primary linguistic description has changed as the result of political change, the insistence by many First Nations people, that the work of linguists be responsive to community needs. Thus in the contemporary world, fieldwork of the old style is usually just not an option.

  7. Homo loquens grammaturgicus

  8. Work within the Chomskyan paradigms has emphasized "linguistic creativity." What this has generally meant is that adequate theories of Language and of languages must accomodate the fact that speakers can produce and understand novel utterances without bound. I believe there is another kind of creativity in the world of language, at the level of grammar creation. Adequate theories of Language must make room for this kind of creativity as well. In short, accounts of Universal Grammar must give room for the quite astonishing variety that we find in particular grammars. The best way to appreciate this is to look at a lot of languages in detail. Since none of us can look at all languages directly, we must make do with descriptions of the languages. As a matter of strategy, descriptions of languages that are theory-driven must be balanced by descriptions that are carried out in the spirit of the advice often given in older and other traditions than those of some of the dominant theoretical stances:

    We need to cherish and study linguistic diversity for reasons that are as important scientifically as they are politically and ethically. It is not a bad idea to let a language unfold itself to you on its own terms for a good long while before you jump to fitting it into your theory or testing your theories against it. (Bach, [1996])

    There are two reasons to believe that the human linguistic organ (UG?) has an inherent creativity, and hence two reasons to believe that theories of universal grammar that are too constrained cannot be adequate:

    Two reasons for believing in the creativity of the human linguistic organ:
  9. Three meanings for "language"

  10. In various publications, Chomsky has distinguished between various meanings of the word `language.' Two notions have been constant: (1) a language considered as a set of utterances, sentences or whatnot, (2) a more abstract and idealized object connected to a grammar and more a virtual than an actual matter. These two meanings went with his early distinction between `observational' and `descriptive' adequacy, as attributes of linguistic theories, specifications of the form and content of grammars. The latest incarnations of these notions appear in these two terms (Chomsky, 1995):

    1. E-language
    2. ..."E is to suggest `external' and `extensional'" (Chomsky, 1995: 16)
    3. I-languages
    4. ..."I is to suggest `internal,' `individual,' and `intensional'" (Chomsky, 1995, p. 15).

      In the surrounding text, Chomsky makes an explicit connection to the earlier concepts of observational and descriptive adequacy. It is fair, in view of the discussion here to also link the `I' to another word, `idealised.' Chomsky hypothetical speaker Jones does not `have' such a language in a pure state. "Rather, Jones will have some jumble of systems, based on the peculiar pattern of his experience" (p. 19). And:
      Furthermore, even if a homogeneous speech community existed, we would not expect its linguist system to be a "pure case." Rather. all sorts of accidents of history would have contaminated the system, as in the properties of (roughly) Romance versus Germanic origin in the lexicon of English. The proper topic of inquiry, then, should be a theory of the initial state that abstracts from such accidents, no trivial matter. (ibid.

      Some years ago I suggested a third term, to complement Chomsky's two (Bach, [1996]):

    5. R-languages.
    6. R is intended to suggest "real." (Bach, 1996)

      An R-language is supposed to be precisely what Jones or an actual speech community might "have." Of course, idealization is still in order, but dealing with an R-language means dealing precisely with the results of the accidents of history, and whatever jumble of systems might result. But theories of acquisition must make room for how people learn such sets of systems, and to understand language change, linguistics must deal with just how such jumbles and historical accidents can become systematized and approach and mold I-languages. Moreover, I believe that it is only through such study that we can approach an understanding of the surprising diversity of languages.

  11. Tensions

  12. There is a natural affinity between the three notions of language and the three kinds of language study distinguished above. The theoretical linguist is, like Chomsky, focused on I-language(s), the descriptive linguist will be primarily concerned with R-languages, or at least will not be able to avoid them, while the philologist will be deeply involved with R-languages, and the products of users of the language, that is to say, with E-language: sets of texts, corpora, memorable utterances by particular Joneses. There will probably always be tensions among the practicioners of these various activities, often within the heart and mind of individual workers. A few hours spent on reading articles and reviews in prominent journals of the various activities will bring this home.

    But there is a fourth group that we must add to our consideration: the native speakers, the members of the communities whose languages we study. This group also has a notion of language, and it is different from all the above. I say "notion," but probably we should think of pluralities. In any case, I am thinking of a language as embedded in a culture, and alive in the consciousnesses of the members of the culture. The concepts of language that linguists use often abstract away from the cultural matrix of the language. I believe that many of the disagreements and tensions that arise when native speakers and linguists confront each other arise simply from differences in what the several groups mean by "language."

    We can appreciate this point by considering the problem of translation. One of the cardinal results of the linguistic study of the last two centuries has been the realization that languages are all completely adequate toolboxes for expressing anything that their users want to express. This thesis is often embodied in the slogan:

    All languages are created equal!

    This means that given time and patience and the possibility of paraphrase it is possible to translate anything from any language into any other. But what do we mean by `translate' here? There is an opposite view of expressibility that is equally often expressed, perhaps more by non-linguists than linguists: "Translation was never possible" writes Margaret Atwood in a poem `Marsh Languages' (Atwood, 1995). And this sentiment is equally true and valid but we must understand here "translation" in the sense of reproduction of a piece of language in its flesh and bones and skin, not just the discursive content.

  13. A Case Study: Syntactic Categories.

  14. In this section I will take the question of the cross-linguistic identification of syntactic and morphological categories as a case in point, where different linguists have made different assumptions about what is to be expected, i.e. what is a "null hypothesis." Ideas about syntactic and morphological categories provide a good mirror of changing stances toward universal and particular grammar and grammars. Put briefly, the development has been from the assumption that all languages potentially share the same categories, namely, those familiar from Latin and Greek, to the opposite assumption that such categories were purely language specific, then back to the universalist view, but presumably grounded in a theoretically more defensible foundation, and then back to an emphasis on the language-particularity of such categories. The history of morphological / inflectional concepts is similar. These stages or stances can be characterized by appropriate slogans:

  15. Outlook: the discussion continues.

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