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zompist bboard • View topic - Language Universals

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 Post subject: Language Universals
PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 12:19 pm 
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 4:00 pm 
Lebom
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First of all, most "universals" aren't universal. They're tendencies, statistical correlations. See e.g. the at the University of Konstanz (the archive itself seems to be down again, but bookmark that page and check back later) or by Matthew Dryer.

As for those universals to which no exception is known (such as, presumably, this one about stops), well, languages violating them will probably always be rare, but there is only a finite number of languages currently spoken on Earth and not all of them have been well described by linguists. Until the late 1970s there were no languages known in which object preceded supject and verb in basic word order. Then Hixkaryana (OVS) was discovered. There are only a very few OVS and OSV languages reported (and in several cases the basic order is disputed), and none of them have very large populations. It's easy to imagine a world in which these languages died out without being studied, and then we would not know that they were possible. But thanks to Hixkaryana we do.

It's probably a good idea to know which features of your conlang are typologically unusual, and to remark on it in your grammar. But you shouldn't necessarily think of them as unbreakable laws. Rather, they're probabilistic, and a feature can have a finite probability which is sufficiently low that it isn't guaranteed to show up in a sample of 6000. (Of course, there may be some truly absolute universals too. But you can't identify them simply by observing that a feature doesn't exist in any documented language.)


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 4:54 pm 
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I don't mean to sound like a hopeless Chomskyite (which I'm not), but I believe there are universals that all languages follow (and a great many other ones that are not true universals).

I don't think, for example that things like say basic sentence structure should be tampered with - unless the conlanger has a great deal of experience and knowledge. My view is, stick to the basics to start with, and the more practice you get, the more you will be able to make your languages unearthly. There's nothing worse, in my view, than a conlang that attempts to be inhuman but just ends up being an unreal mess.


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 5:35 pm 
Niš
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All my conlangs are for humans; unlike Zomp or Tolkien I have little use for nonhumans. However, I believe this is largely irrelevant (except when it comes to sounds).

I don't think there is any genetically inherent grammar in our bloods that causes us to use those language universals, anymore than there is genetic determination of which language we can speak. The language universals that I've run across have all seemed basically about convenience and clarity: /p,t,k/ for example because of the distinctness of the sounds and the high contrastiveness of stops with vowels. If this "convenience" can be discarded in various languages, than so can "conviences" of the sort that determine "markedness" of this and that grammatical feature.

I know it was odd of me to start this thread with a question on a topic where I already have a strong opinion, but I know a lot of you have more of a linguistic background than I do, and I'm curious as to everyone's opinions.


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 16, 2003 6:32 pm 
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Actually voiceless stops are pretty hard to distinguish, and even voiced stops are pretty hard to distinguish, as the person who showed us the McGurk effect helped me realize. Again, I'm going to use my baby theory, that is, ... humans will distinguish whatever babies distinguish, plus some more innovations. That's just a hunch though, it could be totally wrong.

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