Summer School 2016

T. Florian Jaeger: "Progress in the study of language universals"

Languages across the world vary along many dimensions, but also share many commonalities. A common assumption—whether in generative or functional linguistics—is that at least some of the commonalities cannot be reduced to historical or geographic dependencies between languages. Rather, these cross-linguistic patterns (e.g., gradient or absolute "universals") are taken to be due to biases that originate in properties of the human brain. Much of the ongoing debate thus focuses more on the specific nature of the biases, whether they are specific to linguistic systems and in this sense cognitive arbitrary, or whether they are shared with other cognitive systems and/or follow from general constraints on communicative systems.

Traditionally, research on the causes of linguistic universals—a question that has continued to intrigue scientists and the public alike—has primarily originated in linguistic departments. Increasingly though, it has been researchers from other disciplines that have introduced novel methods and theories from other fields (statistics, biology, physics, information theory, psychology, etc.) to address this question. Some recent research, for example, has called into question whether there is any evidence for Greenbergian word order universals (Dunn et al., 2011-Nature; though see replies, including Croft et al., 2011-Linguistic Typology).

While any given example of this trend can be subject to criticism, this new types of studies raise both challenges and opportunities for linguistics: linguistics has much to offer to this endeavor; however, in order to participate in this research, linguistic scholars will also have to embrace this new world and acquire the training to partake in it.

I will give an overview of recent research in this vein, focusing on work from my lab. Specifically, I will present cross-linguistic computational studies and behavioral experiments that jointly suggest i) that there are universal biases affecting word order preferences, ii) that these biases originate in language processing, iii) that the biases are strong enough to cause learners to produce different outputs from the inputs they receive, and iv) that the effect of this cause can be observed cross-linguistically. Crucially, these biases do not predict absolute universals, but rather gradient relational patterns. The framework I present can capture both diversity and commonalities across languages, while making predictions about what types of languages one should be unlikely to observe.

With this work in mind, I hope to stimulate discussion of how it can be extended, corrected, improved, etc.

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