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Language Universals

  Broadly speaking, scholars of linguistics identify three different types of language universal. First, there are so-called absolute universals, which comprise those aspects of language which find expression in every single known (or possible) human language. (For example, vowels have been attested universally in the languages of the world.) The second category consists of so-called implicational universals, whereby the presence of one feature in a given language can be taken as an automatic indicator that certain other features will also be present. Universals of this kind provide an indication of the limitations of natural language, since only certain combinations of properties are permissible. In contrast, distributional universals merely express the relative frequency of certain linguistic characteristics from one language to the next, thus creating a rank order which demonstrates their relative popularity.

When considering absolute universals, an explanation is required for why certain properties of language are indispensable. In this regard, Chomsky\'s theory of universal grammar offers an explanation based on the innate predispositions of human beings. It is argued that language constitutes an independent faculty of the mind which embodies certain highly specific structural properties. The fact that certain aspects of language appear to be manifested universally is thus explained in the context of biological development. In favour of this approach it is often argued that every child manages to acquire a highly complex linguistic system within a relatively short space of time, and comes to demonstrate linguistic knowledge which could not possibly have been acquired on the basis of experience alone. However, the arguments advanced in favour of this approach are rarely supported with convincing empirical evidence, since the task of disentangling the mutually interweaving influences of biology and environment often appears, in our present state of knowledge, insuperable.

It is quite possible that no single theoretical approach will explain the full spectrum of observed language universals. Instead, we should expect a range of possible motivations, applicable within particular domains. Within this framework, innate predispositions might account for some, but not all, observed universals. Competing explanations include the natural limitations of humans in comprehending, producing and memorizing speech; the expression of universal aspects of meaning which are reflected in the syntactic and morphological organization of languages; the perceptual capacities of human beings; and the practical requirements of human communication. It is perhaps too ambitious to expect just one of these competing explanations to account for the full range of observed language universals. For example, a plausible appeal can be made to the pragmatics of discourse to explain why all known languages possess a full complement of personal pronouns in the first, second and third persons, in both singular and plural forms (in English, ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’, ‘you’ (plural), ‘they’). It is argued that the organization of human communication would be impossible unless every language manifested these particular linguistic structures. However, it is equally clear that many universals do not find a satisfactory explanation in pragmatic factors. One could also ask why a whole range of fundamental pragmatic factors (for example, the expression of a speaker\'s wishes) have not been universally grammaticalized. MS

See also innateness; linguistic typology.Further reading B. Comrie, Language Universals and Linguistic Typology: Syntax and Morphology; , W. Croft, Typology and Universals.



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