Emmon Bach
UMass(Amherst) / SOAS(ULondon)

Abstract About: the tensions between the inner and outer view of R-languages ("real languages"), the language-centered and theory-centered study of languages, the (often foreign) linguist and the (sometimes linguist) native speaker, description and theory, a language as a set of choices and extensions of universal grammar and as a concrete realization in a particular culture and history. The materials for this paper are drawn mostly from First Nations languages, especially those of the Pacific Northwest.

Setting: a Central Puzzle

Let's start with two views of language:

I. Languages are "basically" all the same, the differences between them are superficial.
II. Languages are "basically" very different.

These two views have predominated at different times and among different people:

I: Chomsky, 1995; Pinker, 1994
II: Bloomfield, 1933; Joos, 1957: the "Boas tradition."

For example, Chomsky has written:

The primary [task at hand for the Minimalist Program] is to show that the apparent richness and diversity of linguistic phenomena is illusory and epiphenomenal, the result of interaction of fixed principles under slightly varying conditions.'' (N. Chomsky, 1995: 8)

One may ask: Why is the richness and diversity only "apparent"?

Languages are not all the same. Do contemporary linguistic theories deal adequately with linguistic diversity? Some writers say No (Nichols, 1992; Bach, [1995]; Baker, 1988)

Theories of Universal Grammar are calculated to deal with the ways in which languages are similar. But if the Language Faculty is supposed to offer a basis for understanding language acquisition then it must have some room for quite deep and surprising differences among languages.

It used to be that linguists were enjoined to describe each language on its own terms. Now it is often presumed that all languages are basically the same.

Ordinary people who speak one or another of the languages of the world will be surprised to hear that all languages are basically one ("Earthese"), not to say chagrined, especially if they have struggled as adults to learn a new language that is very different from their own.

Linguistic theories have to deal with two questions:

A. How come languages are so different?
B. How come languages are so similar?

The attention paid to these two questions has varied a lot over the years. If you start from the sense that languages are basically very similar, then Question B should be uppermost, if you start from the sense that they are very different then it is Question A that burns. In fact, both questions presuppose that we have some way of characterizing differences and similarities among languages as well as some expectations about what is expected in the way of variation. In my opinion, neither presupposition is met at present, a view expressed by Johanna Nichols:

....standard historical method ... has no theory of diversity and no way of scientifically describing diversity. Hence, diversity has no theoretical status in historical linguistics (or, for that matter, in synchronic linguistics). (Nichols, 1992: 5)

Here, I want to emphasize that languages can be pretty different, and that linguistic theories that do not accomodate these differences are not adequate.

The main questions of this talk:

i. How different or similar are languages anyhow?
ii. Where are the differences and similarities in languages?
iii. Can the two views be reconciled?

We need to ask the question: What do we mean by "language" anyway?" Kinds of language:

Chomsky introduced a distinction between two sense of language:
(Think: Extensional language.)

(Think: Ideal or Intensional language.)

We might add:
(Think: Real language, Bach [1995], Bach, [2001].) I mean by this a language in the sense that a speaker "has" a language with all its special quirkiness, in a cultural context, and in many of its aspects present in consciousness (more on this toward the end of the essay).

These questions are not just theoretically or academically relevant. They have a practical, ethical, and political resonance as well, especially in the context of First Nations languages, and the crisis of minority and dominated languages in the face of continuing linguistic imperialism.

Some Ways of Difference

The Pacific Northwest is often cited as a prime example for areal linguistics, a "Sprachbund," where related and unrelated languages share many substantive characteristics. In this, the main section of this paper, I will sketch some ways in which some First Nations languages of British Columbia are similar and different, drawing on a few other languages of the world for contrast and comparisons.

Cherishing Difference: Structure and Texture

Creators of natural languages choose from a universal palette and create their own special way of talking and being in language.

A good theory of Universal Grammar is supposed to help explain how kids acquire their particular languages. Such a theory must have room for the diversity of Parochial Grammars. The actual diversity we find cannot, in my opinion, be solely attributed to global parameters, in the sense of setting properties for a language as a whole. Finally, there must be a place in this picture for linguistic creativity at the level of grammar creation.

Evidence for this creativity lies both in the retention of special characteristics of a language or language group over time and in the (sometimes quite rapid) changes of languages (Thomason, 2001).

Differences among languages as perceived and used by real speakers have to do both with the basic structures of the language and with the texture of the language as used among groups of people and in particular contexts.

Languages as Poems

When we talk about "the language of Shakespeare" or the like, what are we talking about? We don't just mean his dialect or even idiolect -- his individual variety of the English of the time. We mean rather something like his individual style. What is style? It is the particular choices that an individual makes and exploits within a common language, and even ways in which the writer -- or speaker -- stretches the limits of the language. This is not just a matter of "high language" or Literature.

Likewise: individual languages, "real languages," show individual characteristics as well, in the choices that they make within and even in the ways that they stretch the limits of Universal Grammar.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of the late Hilda Smith of Rivers Inlet and Port Hardy. Thanks to many teachers, coworkers, and helpers from C'imauc'a (Kitamaat Village), Ahousat, Kitsumkalum, Odanak, and elsewhere. Mistakes are my own.


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