Language Universals

The best topics from Languages & Linguistics, kept on a permanent basis.
jburke

Post by jburke »

Dudicon wrote:The most plausible explanation for the ubiquity of the a i u system is simply that it makes the most efficient use of the vowel space of any three vowels. Essentially, those three vowels have the most distance between themselves of any set of three vowels.


e, (low back) a and u has just as much space as i,a,u, and offers the further benefit of having a vowel in each of the three height levels.

User avatar
Soap
Smeric
Smeric
Posts: 1228
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2003 2:57 pm
Location: Scattered disc
Contact:

Post by Soap »

But why not /a/ /M/ /y/ instead? We could call it the Amy system.

I can't offer any support for the baby theory, because it's just what I would like to be true, rather than what I think actually is true. But anyway, at a young age babies don't really emulate the speech patterns of their parents. I'm thinking like 6 months old. Even in America, where /a/ is rare or nonexistent in most dialects, the babies tend to prefer /a/ over all other vowels and then /e/ /i/ /u/ /o/. At least, I read that somewhere in a book about children's speech.
Sunàqʷa the Sea Lamprey says:
Image

zompist
Boardlord
Boardlord
Posts: 3368
Joined: Thu Sep 12, 2002 8:26 pm
Location: In the den
Contact:

Post by zompist »

Hmm, universals (he said, attempting with both hands and a massive wrench to get the thread back on track).

I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I think universals have been over-sold and under-understood. As has been pointed out, most of the 'universals' that have been posited are statistical expectations to which exceptions are known. In addition, a very useful question to ask about any purported universal is: does it apply to sign languages too?

On the other hand, once you know things about a lot of languages, there are certain ideas that seem not like brilliant departures from the norm, but like ignorance. Since we were talking about vowel systems, let's say someone comes up with /?:, ?, o/. Is that smart or stupid? I'd probably be unimpressed by it, since vowel systems tend to spread themselves out in vowel space, and because marked features like rounding, length, and nasalization don't tend to occur on just one vowel in a system. (But the fact that all the vowels are back might be rather interesting-- perhaps it's a response to a slightly different physiology.)

In my experience, the real universals are the ones it takes long, hard thought to violate-- the ones that (to borrow a metaphor from Douglas Hofstadter) are found not by dialing the knobs to an unusual setting, but by installing new knobs on the box.

Miekk0

Post by Miekk0 »

jburke wrote:e, (low back) a and u has just as much space as i,a,u, and offers the further benefit of having a vowel in each of the three height levels.

That is true for a standard vowel diagram, yes, but how is it if you compare the audible difference? I suspect there's a bit more difference in the formants for i a u than for e a u. Just my 2 cnts though.

User avatar
civman2000
Sanci
Sanci
Posts: 24
Joined: Fri Oct 24, 2003 8:54 pm
Location: GOD Party Headquarters (temporarily); Inagalasi (pala sapikusanide Inagalasifi; otorofe)

Post by civman2000 »

It is true that most "universals" are general patterns and most of them are broken by a very small number of languages. However, there are some that truly are universal, such as all languages having pulmonic consonants (in particular voiceless stops) and I believe front and back vowels. Also, all languages have nouns and verbs.
[b]VOTE FOR ME AND THE GOD PARTY IN ZBB VOOM '04! WITHOUT ME 2/3RDS OF YOU WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO VOTE![/b]

Sapikenak-atabin inagalas?fi? Nofi? Lanarusen [url=spinnoff.com/zbb/viewtopic.php?t=1826]retani[/url]!

GUDA

User avatar
Dudicon
Lebom
Lebom
Posts: 116
Joined: Sun Feb 09, 2003 12:07 am
Location: The Palace of the Sun God
Contact:

Post by Dudicon »

civman2000 wrote:Also, all languages have nouns and verbs.


Ah, you'd best confer with Jeff on that one before you write it in any books.

jburke

Post by jburke »

Miekk0 wrote:
jburke wrote:e, (low back) a and u has just as much space as i,a,u, and offers the further benefit of having a vowel in each of the three height levels.

That is true for a standard vowel diagram, yes, but how is it if you compare the audible difference? I suspect there's a bit more difference in the formants for i a u than for e a u. Just my 2 cnts though.


e,a,u and i,a,u are of equal distinction to my ears. There may be some subtle differences, but they're so small that they couldn't account for the widespread choice of i,a,u.

jburke

Post by jburke »

Dudicon wrote:
civman2000 wrote:Also, all languages have nouns and verbs.


Ah, you'd best confer with Jeff on that one before you write it in any books.


Thanks, Dudicon.

We know with a high degree of certainty that the above wasn't true in the past; e.g., Proto Iroquois had unified morphology and apparently no semantic distinction between nouns and verbs (and it is, in this respect, the template for Noyahtukah). All Iroquois formal nouns are of recent innovation; and the nominal morphologies of the Iroquois languages are crude and simplistic compared to the verbal morphologies.

The same was true of Algonquian, but you have to go further back to see it; even by the time of Proto Algonquian formal nouns had begun to evolve (though they were clearly secondary in importance to verbs). This is where it gets interesting. The Salishan and Waskashan languages are likely ancient offshoots of Proto Algonquian's ancestor, and in some of them it has been claimed that there is no formal distinction between nouns and verbs; Nootka, e.g. I haven't fully investigated the Salishan and Wakashan families yet, so I can't give my own opinion, but it wouldn't surprise me if this were true. Some have contested it--likely to save some theory or other of universal grammar; but Sapir definitely believed it, and I tend to trust his instincts. It would definitely fit with what we know about Algonquian's past.

langfiend

Post by langfiend »

jburke wrote:
Dudicon wrote:
civman2000 wrote:Also, all languages have nouns and verbs.


Ah, you'd best confer with Jeff on that one before you write it in any books.


Thanks, Dudicon.

We know with a high degree of certainty that the above wasn't true in the past; e.g., Proto Iroquois had unified morphology and apparently no semantic distinction between nouns and verbs (and it is, in this respect, the template for Noyahtukah). All Iroquois formal nouns are of recent innovation; and the nominal morphologies of the Iroquois languages are crude and simplistic compared to the verbal morphologies.

The same was true of Algonquian, but you have to go further back to see it; even by the time of Proto Algonquian formal nouns had begun to evolve (though they were clearly secondary in importance to verbs). This is where it gets interesting. The Salishan and Waskashan languages are likely ancient offshoots of Proto Algonquian's ancestor, and in some of them it has been claimed that there is no formal distinction between nouns and verbs; Nootka, e.g. I haven't fully investigated the Salishan and Wakashan families yet, so I can't give my own opinion, but it wouldn't surprise me if this were true. Some have contested it--likely to save some theory or other of universal grammar; but Sapir definitely believed it, and I tend to trust his instincts. It would definitely fit with what we know about Algonquian's past.


How many proto-langs are there is the New World? Have you made use of Proto-Iroquois?

jburke

Post by jburke »

langfiend wrote:How many proto-langs are there is the New World? Have you made use of Proto-Iroquois?


I don't know the total number, but quite a few. The ones I know best are Protos Algonquian and Iroquois; ones I've looked at are Protos Algic and Salishan; and I've heard of Protos Quechuan (from Mark), Caddoan, and Ute-Aztecan. But there are undoubtedly more.

And, yes, I've made use of PI, as I said--it's the inspiration for Noyahtukah morphology. I also used the phonological shifts from PI > Mohawk as inspiration for Noyahtukah > Hano?atsi. (Basically, if it's Algonquian or Iroquois, I've probably used it at some point in some manner.)

Neek
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 355
Joined: Mon Sep 30, 2002 12:13 pm
Location: im itësin
Contact:

Post by Neek »

Which raises the question, Jeff, do these languages place greater focus on verbs than nouns, or rather the lack of a distinction, based on personal psychology (that is, *kinesthetic, I'm not familiar with the term itself, so forgive me if I'm wrong), or is it just a feature of the language?

jburke

Post by jburke »

Nikolai wrote:Which raises the question, Jeff, do these languages place greater focus on verbs than nouns, or rather the lack of a distinction, based on personal psychology (that is, *kinesthetic, I'm not familiar with the term itself, so forgive me if I'm wrong), or is it just a feature of the language?


The PI lack of a formal noun-verb distinction was accompanied by a lack of semantic distinction. Even today, most Mohawk "nouns" are really verbs (people call them nouns because they fill the same syntatic role that formal nouns do--but morphologically and semantically, they are verbs.)
And even Mohawk formal nouns are generally associated semantically with some kind of motion or process--after all, they all evolved from verbs.

In the introduction to Noyahtukah morpohology I wrote an account of all this. You might find it useful in understanding how it all fits together; the intro is posted on my blog:

http://www.livejournal.com/~daszeria

I won't claim that every word of the description of the mindset is absolutely accurate, but it's generally in the right direction. (This is art, and necessitates my own embellihsments and filling in of gaps where no information is available).

User avatar
civman2000
Sanci
Sanci
Posts: 24
Joined: Fri Oct 24, 2003 8:54 pm
Location: GOD Party Headquarters (temporarily); Inagalasi (pala sapikusanide Inagalasifi; otorofe)

Post by civman2000 »

We know with a high degree of certainty that the above wasn't true in the past; e.g., Proto Iroquois had unified morphology and apparently no semantic distinction between nouns and verbs (and it is, in this respect, the template for Noyahtukah). All Iroquois formal nouns are of recent innovation; and the nominal morphologies of the Iroquois languages are crude and simplistic compared to the verbal morphologies.

The same was true of Algonquian, but you have to go further back to see it; even by the time of Proto Algonquian formal nouns had begun to evolve (though they were clearly secondary in importance to verbs). This is where it gets interesting. The Salishan and Waskashan languages are likely ancient offshoots of Proto Algonquian's ancestor, and in some of them it has been claimed that there is no formal distinction between nouns and verbs; Nootka, e.g. I haven't fully investigated the Salishan and Wakashan families yet, so I can't give my own opinion, but it wouldn't surprise me if this were true. Some have contested it--likely to save some theory or other of universal grammar; but Sapir definitely believed it, and I tend to trust his instincts. It would definitely fit with what we know about Algonquian's past.


Heh, I guess my old linguistics textbook is wrong then...
[b]VOTE FOR ME AND THE GOD PARTY IN ZBB VOOM '04! WITHOUT ME 2/3RDS OF YOU WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO VOTE![/b]

Sapikenak-atabin inagalas?fi? Nofi? Lanarusen [url=spinnoff.com/zbb/viewtopic.php?t=1826]retani[/url]!

GUDA

jburke

Post by jburke »

civman2000 wrote:
We know with a high degree of certainty that the above wasn't true in the past; e.g., Proto Iroquois had unified morphology and apparently no semantic distinction between nouns and verbs (and it is, in this respect, the template for Noyahtukah). All Iroquois formal nouns are of recent innovation; and the nominal morphologies of the Iroquois languages are crude and simplistic compared to the verbal morphologies.

The same was true of Algonquian, but you have to go further back to see it; even by the time of Proto Algonquian formal nouns had begun to evolve (though they were clearly secondary in importance to verbs). This is where it gets interesting. The Salishan and Waskashan languages are likely ancient offshoots of Proto Algonquian's ancestor, and in some of them it has been claimed that there is no formal distinction between nouns and verbs; Nootka, e.g. I haven't fully investigated the Salishan and Wakashan families yet, so I can't give my own opinion, but it wouldn't surprise me if this were true. Some have contested it--likely to save some theory or other of universal grammar; but Sapir definitely believed it, and I tend to trust his instincts. It would definitely fit with what we know about Algonquian's past.


Heh, I guess my old linguistics textbook is wrong then...


Not an uncommon fault for textbooks; I don't depend on them. Then again, a noun-verb distinction can be considered a "universal" in the sense that it's a tendency, while not an absolute.

Aidan
Lebom
Lebom
Posts: 104
Joined: Sun Nov 10, 2002 12:03 am
Location: Tâl Katar
Contact:

Post by Aidan »

Mercator wrote:But why not /a/ /M/ /y/ instead? We could call it the Amy system.


A bit late, but I've got a reply to that. Back vowels get their distinctive sound from the greater length of the part of the mouth which is used to shape the sound, and front vowels from corresponding shortness. Rounding of the lips lengthens the "tube", and so a rounded back vowel sounds a bit "more back" and an unrounded front vowel sounds a bit "more front", so the /a/ /u/ /i/ is definitely more distinct than /a/ /M/ /y/.

Neek
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 355
Joined: Mon Sep 30, 2002 12:13 pm
Location: im itësin
Contact:

Post by Neek »

Is that it? The 'universal' is all languages have at least two from /p, t, k, or ?/? That isn't so much a universal as a sweeping generalization.

User avatar
Wycoval
Lebom
Lebom
Posts: 110
Joined: Wed Feb 02, 2005 11:49 am
Location: Body of an adult, mind of a child.
Contact:

Post by Wycoval »

[size=200]☧[/size]

Rodlox
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 281
Joined: Tue Jul 12, 2005 11:02 am

Post by Rodlox »

jburke wrote:
Nikolai wrote:Which raises the question, Jeff, do these languages place greater focus on verbs than nouns, or rather the lack of a distinction, based on personal psychology (that is, *kinesthetic, I'm not familiar with the term itself, so forgive me if I'm wrong), or is it just a feature of the language?


The PI lack of a formal noun-verb distinction was accompanied by a lack of semantic distinction. Even today, most Mohawk "nouns" are really verbs (people call them nouns because they fill the same syntatic role that formal nouns do--but morphologically and semantically, they are verbs.)
And even Mohawk formal nouns are generally associated semantically with some kind of motion or process--after all, they all evolved from verbs.

In the introduction to Noyahtukah morpohology I wrote an account of all this. You might find it useful in understanding how it all fits together; the intro is posted on my blog:

http://www.livejournal.com/~daszeria


page not found.
MadBrain is a genius.

User avatar
schwhatever
Lebom
Lebom
Posts: 157
Joined: Mon Aug 14, 2006 6:04 pm
Location: NorCal
Contact:

Post by schwhatever »

jburke wrote:Addendum:

E.g., consider the most common tri-vowel set: i,a,u. There are other sets of three vowels that are just as distinct (e,a,u, with the /a/ as a low back vowel, e.g.), but they're nowhere near as common.


You're revealing your language's basic assumptions about the world. Quranic Arabic, for example, didn't distinguish between [i e] or [u o].

As Nuntar(?), said earlier, [i] is farther from [a] than [e], but this is ignoring the general realizations of /a i u/ in many systems. In Quechua, they are much closer to [6 I U] than anything else. I believe Zomp's theory on this is that without other vowels to block them from sliding inward a little, they... slid inward a little.
[quote="Jar Jar Binks"]Now, by making just a few small changes, we prettify the orthography for happier socialist tomorrow![/quote][quote="Xonen"]^ WHS. Except for the log thing and the Andean panpipers.[/quote]

User avatar
Soap
Smeric
Smeric
Posts: 1228
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2003 2:57 pm
Location: Scattered disc
Contact:

Post by Soap »

Rodlox wrote: page not found.
This thread is a million years old now, parts of it arent going to make sense. For example, I was known as Mercator back then. And how often does Zomp post in L&L nowadays?
Sunàqʷa the Sea Lamprey says:
Image

User avatar
Whimemsz
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 690
Joined: Fri Jun 20, 2003 4:56 pm
Location: Gimaamaa onibaaganing

Post by Whimemsz »

Soap wrote:And how often does Zomp post nowadays?


(fixed). Not very often.

schwatever wrote:You're revealing your language's basic assumptions about the world. Quranic Arabic, for example, didn't distinguish between [i e] or [u o].


What? What does that have to do with anything? And how is that his "language's basic assumptions about the world"?

Gremlins
Sanci
Sanci
Posts: 59
Joined: Wed Mar 08, 2006 1:54 pm
Location: The western spiral arm of Great Britain (we don't have toilets)

Post by Gremlins »

schwhatever wrote:As Nuntar(?), said earlier, [i] is farther from [a] than [e], but this is ignoring the general realizations of /a i u/ in many systems. In Quechua, they are much closer to [6 I U] than anything else. I believe Zomp's theory on this is that without other vowels to block them from sliding inward a little, they... slid inward a little.


Actually, Quechua /a/ is realised something like [{] by native speakers. Classical Arabic /a/ may have been closer to [{] aswell (given that plenty of dialects realise long or short */a/ as [E]). So what we have is /a/ actually moving *towards* /i/ in a tri-vowel system. What Vohpenonomae was suggesting was a system of /e u A/, which if we take the "vowels spread out across the available space" trend, looks perfectly possible. However, it does go against the "a language tends to have more front vowels than back vowels" trend.

Schwatever: Staaaay awaaay from sapir and whorf. They might be vaguely right, but not to the extent that "OMG UR VOWELS IZ IMPEEDING UR THOUGHTS" isn't retarded. Also IIRC voh speaks fluent Mohawk and an Algonquin language whose name I've forgotten.
[quote="dinnae"][quote="Sano"]I'm a Homo sapien, does that count?[/quote]

Only if you go Erectus in the presence of the same sex.[/quote]

User avatar
Whimemsz
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 690
Joined: Fri Jun 20, 2003 4:56 pm
Location: Gimaamaa onibaaganing

Post by Whimemsz »

Gremlins wrote:Schwatever: Staaaay awaaay from sapir and whorf. They might be vaguely right, but not to the extent that "OMG UR VOWELS IZ IMPEEDING UR THOUGHTS" isn't retarded. Also IIRC voh speaks fluent Mohawk and an Algonquin language whose name I've forgotten.


Algonquian language. And it's Cheyenne.

Also, agreed with the staying away from the Whorfian stuff. I mean, to a small extent I think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has some stuff right, but ... but large-scale it's nonsense.

User avatar
RedFox
Niš
Niš
Posts: 7
Joined: Tue Dec 13, 2005 11:09 am
Location: Cambridge, UK
Contact:

Post by RedFox »

Rodlox wrote:
jburke wrote:In the introduction to Noyahtukah morpohology I wrote an account of all this. You might find it useful in understanding how it all fits together; the intro is posted on my blog:

http://www.livejournal.com/~daszeria


page not found.


Um, Google?

http://www.geocities.com/rtoennis/

:P
"I wish life was not so short, he thought. Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about."
[i]The Lost Road[/i], by J R R Tolkien

User avatar
dhok
Avisaru
Avisaru
Posts: 859
Joined: Wed Oct 24, 2007 7:39 pm
Location: The Eastern Establishment

Post by dhok »

I read somewhere that [a] was a sound in every language. But now I have nagging doubts...

Post Reply