The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Of course some important details were lost in the process. We did not, as some reporters thought, travel the globe just to record people saying ‘huh?’ (instead, our work was as much corpus-based as it was fieldwork based). Nor did we find that people everywhere produce the phonetic sequence h-u-h (instead, we found that the word is calibrated to local linguistic systems). But most importantly, we did not only study ‘huh?’ — the finding was just one of the first in a much larger project in which we are comparing conversational structures across languages.

Pragmatic typology

Typology is the comparative study of linguistic systems. Just like one can develop typologies of sound systems, syntax, and semantics, so one can develop typologies of pragmatics and conversational structures. At the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen we run several large-scale comparative projects aimed at contributing to an emerging field of pragmatic typology — the typology of systems of language use and the principles that shape them. Our work is part of a recent upsurge of comparative research on conversational structure (e.g., Selting and Couper-Kuhlen 2001; Enfield and Stivers 2007; Sidnell 2009; Stivers et al. 2009; Dingemanse and Floyd 2014, among others).

With the publication and media storm behind us, it is interesting to look a bit more closely at the reception of the 'huh?' paper as one instance of work in this emerging field. We were happy with the quality of most of the coverage — not a given in linguistic matters, as Language Log never fails to note. Not only were there hundreds of fairly accurate news stories around the world, but also thoughtful pieces in venerable venues like The Atlantic, the New Statesman, NPR, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt, and Smithsonian Magazine.

This is good news for linguistics: new findings can elicit international media attention, testifying to the avid interest that people take in our subject of study. The simple website with explanatory materials that accompanied the release also helped to steer media coverage in the direction of scientific accuracy, away from some obvious pitfalls. There were, of course, also critical notes. Some readers worried about about contact and inheritance as alternative explanations, matters that we were able to clarify in our FAQ. In this post I want to discuss three issues that seem particularly relevant to readers of Diversity Linguistics Comment: the matter of sample size, the problem of introspection, and the challenge of achieving comparability.

Sample size

In our paper we use two language samples: an extended sample of 31 languages based on our own data and published literature, and a focused subset of 10 languages for which we and our colleagues had access to rich multimedia corpora of informal conversations. Some critics appeared not to have noticed this two-pronged approach and take us to task for looking at only 10 languages.

What did we actually do? Our starting observation was the remarkable similarity of this interjection in the diverse set of languages covered in our project. However, we realised that 10 languages (of 6 phyla) is not the largest typological sample ever, and so we scoured published transcripts of conversation in a wide range of languages to locate further evidence. There were 21 additional languages for which we could find corpora and transcripts that included repair sequences, and in all of those we were able to locate a form of the interjection. That puts the sample at 31 languages from 16 distinct phyla.

Compared to enormous comparative projects like WALS or UPSID, this is still a modest sample. But is it too small? The chance that there are only 16 phyla where this form occurs and we randomly picked those approximates zero; and if we stick to a conventional significance level of 0.05, we can rule out the idea that the property is not universal but only occurs in 354 out of 426 Glottolog phyla (thanks to Harald Hammarström for this observation). What this means is that already from the 16 phyla covered, we can infer that the trait is very likely extremely widespread. Even if it may not be literally found in all 7000+ of the world’s languages (we may never know), the sheer fact of its suspicious similarity in so many unrelated phyla calls for an explanation. The central focus of the discussion in our paper is to provide such an explanation — in the form of a mechanism of convergent cultural evolution. For our argument, it is sufficient that the trait we study is widespread across independent lineages; it is not crucial that it is literally universal.

Of course, like everybody, we like large and diverse samples. And here we hit on the first of the growing pains of pragmatic typology: the data are not there yet. The questions we ask require a different kind of data than that of more traditional approaches to typology. There is no WALS for conversational structures, nor is this kind of data found in grammar libraries or collection of dictionaries. As we note in our FAQ, “rigorous standards prevent us from just adding languages to the sample based on introspection or indirect sources like dictionaries or scripted conversations. Before we consider an interjection comparable, we need to see evidence of it being used to initiate repair in actual records of conversation, available for repeated inspection”. Such data are hard to come by. No doubt this will change in the future, as more linguists turn to the study of conversation (which after all is the ‘primordial site of language use’, Schegloff (2006)) — but for now and some time to come, the hard-won results of pragmatic typology will be based on relatively limited samples.

Introspection and the nature of data

A discussion of our paper at Language Log yielded some interesting comments. One “Martin” made a number of insightful points about our proposals concerning convergent evolution, which led us to clarify a number of points on our FAQ page, for instance concerning what exactly we mean by convergent cultural evolution.

Many of the responses on Language Log were of a different caliber. In the paper we pointed out (citing sources) that in matters of language use, what people think they do is often very different from what they really do. Yet several commentators did little more than express their disbelief about the findings. These included prominent linguists who were happy to rely on their own intuitions even when they ran directly counter to our corpus evidence. In one case, the speculations were so different from our findings that I shared some of our data to resolve the matter. This led to a productive exchange in which our critic conceded that our data indeed showed what we found it did, and not what she thought it should. (This admission was made in the comments to a critical blog post at GeoCurrents which has since been taken down.)

Apart from demonstrating the benefit of working with actual recordings of language use for reasons of accountability, what this exchange showed is that especially in matter of pragmatics, introspection is fraught with problems. All sorts of things get in the way: from lack of awareness (‘I’m sure we never say this!’) to language ideologies (‘that’s rude, we are taught to say excuse me’), to judgments derived from atypical situations ('I would never say this to my boss'). While intuitions are interesting for many reasons, one cannot argue with corpus evidence.

Here then is the second of our growing pains: introspection often fails to give reliable evidence in matters of language use, and we need evidence from language in use to get a clear view of the kinds of structures we are interested in — be it individual items like ‘huh?’ or the larger paradigms of formats for other-initiation of repair they are part of (see Dingemanse, Blythe, and Dirksmeyer 2014 for a first report). That native speaker testimony should be treated with care in matters of pragmatics was already noted by Silverstein in his classic The Limits of Awareness (1981). As Silverstein noted, in the case of matters beyond these limits, “we have to depend upon cross-cultural analysis and the accumulated technical insight based upon this, for native speaker metapragmatic testimony is not going to be necessarily accurate for the general analysis of language” (Silverstein 1981:20). One goal of pragmatic typology is to furnish methods that provide precisely this type of cross-cultural analysis and technical insight: methods that enable rigorous and systematic comparison of language in use across settings and societies.

Natural control method

An important methodological aspect of our study deals with the question of how to achieve comparability. The underlying idea is simple. To do typology, we need systematic comparison. To do systematic comparison, we need to compare like with like. There are established methods for this in phonological, syntactic and semantic typology (Hyman 2009; Lehmann 1978; Pederson et al. 1998), but how to do this in conversation may seem less straightforward. Indeed, many linguists have been trained to believe that conversation, the basic mode in which we experience language, is irredeemably degenerate, ridden with irrelevant performance errors and devoid of clear structure. Decades of research in conversation analysis have refuted this idea (Sacks 1992; Schegloff 2007; Enfield and Sidnell 2014), but this literature is still not widely known in linguistics and it is based mostly on English and a few other major languages. This is the third of our growing pains: the search for rigorous and systematic ways to compare conversational structures.

The key is to find contexts that are stable across different languages. In our study of ‘huh?’, this context is a sequence of other-initiated repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977): A says something, B initiates repair, then A repeats the prior turn. This sequential context provides us with a way to keep one part of the system stable for comparison: the same structure can be located across corpora and across languages, and since the interjection is wedged in between the other two turns, we can be confident that we are comparing what is functionally the same item. Just like experimentalists use laboratory conditions to achieve experimental control, we can use the sequential structure of conversation to achieve natural control. In a recent review we call this the natural control method (Dingemanse and Floyd 2014).

The natural control method has been used, implicitly or explicitly, in a range of comparative studies. Fox, Hayashi and Jasperson (1996) study same-turn self-repair in English and Japanese, investigating how different syntactic structures enable different kinds of repair operations. Rossano, Brown and Levinson (2008) study gaze behaviour in question-answer sequences in Italian, Tzeltal and Yeli Dnye. Stivers et al. (2009) study the turn-taking system in ten languages around the world by comparing hundreds of question-answer sequences, keeping sequential environment and social action constant to capture subtle by systematic differences in timing. Sidnell and Enfield (2012) study a type of social action called ‘K+ second assessment’ in Caribbean English Creole, Finnish, and Lao, and trace the ‘collateral effects’ of different linguistic resources for carrying out this action. Finally, in our work on other-initiated repair, we isolate sequences of other-initiated repair in ten languages to study ‘huh?’-like interjections (Dingemanse, Torreira, and Enfield 2013) as well the larger linguistic system for repair initiation, in order to understand the range of linguistic resources that languages draw on for this function (Dingemanse, Blythe, and Dirksmeyer 2014, and further forthcoming publications by us and other project contributors).

Most work so far has focused on conversational structures that have been well-studied in English and a handful of other major languages — just like the focus of early studies in phonological typology on vowels and consonants, or of semantic typology on colour terms. However, the natural control method can easily be extended to other domains. Take evidentials. Most traditional analyses look at these as markers that encode speaker knowledge, but recent work on evidentials in conversation has brought to light markers that encode the distribution of knowledge between speaker and addressee (Clift 2006; Gipper 2011; Nuckolls & Michael 2014). This work has outlined a number of sequential environments in which evidentials can be found. A next step is to locate these same environments across in different languages, using the natural control method to study the use of evidential strategies in a comparative fashion. Sequential analysis offers powerful tools for comparative research.

In closing

Pragmatic typology is a relatively young field of inquiry. Its youthfulness comes with certain benefits —chief among them the excitement of new discoveries— but also with growing pains. Here I have outlined three of them: the matter of sampling, the nature of data, and the challenge of achieving comparability. With the rise of conversational corpora, changes in evidentiary standards, and the natural control method, these challenges can be overcome, and pragmatic typology will be able to grow into a fruitful field of linguistic inquiry.

*      *      *

P.S. The first version of our paper 'Is "Huh?" a universal word?' did not have correctly typeset IPA characters. The journal has since issued a correction. If you downloaded the paper before April 2014, get the new version here.


  • Clift, Rebecca. 2006. “Indexing stance: Reported speech as an interactional evidential.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 10 (5): 569–595.
  • Dingemanse, Mark, Joe Blythe, and Tyko Dirksmeyer. 2014. “Formats for other-initiation of repair across languages: An exercise in pragmatic typology.” Studies in Language 38 (1): 5–43. doi:10.1075/sl.38.1.01din (PDF).
  • Dingemanse, Mark, and Simeon Floyd. 2014. Conversation across cultures. In Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, ed by. N. J. Enfield, Paul Kockelman, and Jack Sidnell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (PDF)
  • Dingemanse, Mark, Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield. 2013. “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items.” PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273 (PDF).
  • Enfield, N. J., and Jack Sidnell. 2014. Language presupposes an enchronic infrastructure for social interaction. In The Social Origins of Language, ed by. Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis, 92–104. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Enfield, N. J., and Tanya Stivers, eds. 2007. Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural, and Social Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fox, Barbara A., Makoto Hayashi, and Robert Jasperson. 1996. Resources and repair: a cross-linguistic study of syntax and repair. In Interaction and Grammar, ed by. Elinor Ochs, Emanuel A. Schegloff, and Sandra A. Thompson, 185–237. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gipper, Sonja. 2011. Evidentiality and intersubjectivity in Yurakaré: An interactional account. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University & MPI for Psycholinguistics.
  • Hyman, Larry M. 2009. “How (not) to do phonological typology: the case of pitch-accent.” Language Sciences 31 (2-3): 213–238. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.12.007
  • Lehmann, Winfred P., ed. 1978. Syntactic typology: studies in the phenomenology of language. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Nuckolls, Janis B., and Lev Michael, eds. 2014. Evidentiality in interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Pederson, Eric, Eve Danziger, David Wilkins, Stephen Levinson, Sotaro Kita, and Gunter Senft. 1998. “Semantic Typology and Spatial Conceptualization.”Language 74 (3): 557–589.
  • Rossano, Federico, Penelope Brown, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2008. Gaze, Questioning, and Culture. In Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives, ed by. Jack Sidnell, 187–249. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sacks, Harvey. 1992. Lectures on conversation. 2 vols. London: Blackwell.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2006. Interaction: The Infrastructure for Social Institutions, the Natural Ecological Niche for Language, and the Arena in which Culture is Enacted. In Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition, and human interaction, ed by. Nick J. Enfield and Stephen C. Levinson, 70–96. Oxford: Berg.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2007. Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A., Gail Jefferson, and Harvey Sacks. 1977. “The Preference for Self-Correction in the Organization of Repair in Conversation.” Language 53 (2): 361–382. doi:10.2307/412243
  • Selting, Margret, and Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen, eds. 2001. Studies in Interactional Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Sidnell, Jack, ed. 2009. Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidnell, Jack, and N. J. Enfield. 2012. “Language Diversity and Social Action.” Current Anthropology 53 (3): 302–333. doi:10.1086/665697 (PDF).
  • Stivers, Tanya, N.J. Enfield, Penelope Brown, C. Englert, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, et al. 2009. “Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (26): 10587–10592. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903616106 (PDF).
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Max Planck diversity linguistics redux: Welcome to “Linguistic and Cultural Evolution” in Jena

With Bernard Comrie’s retirement at the end of May 2015, the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will close (only two staff members with permanent contracts, David Gil and I, will remain, but will join some other department, without special funding for linguistics). Many linguists who appreciated the work that we have been doing over the last 16 years expressed dismay about this, but it’s actually a perfectly normal development. Unlike university departments, which exist independently of particular professors, departments at Max Planck institutes only last as long as their director is active. After that, a new department in a similar area may be founded (funds permitting) by the Max Planck Society, but this is preceded by a lengthy discussion, and preference is often given to new fields that are not sufficiently established in Germany’s research context. Since linguistics is only one of the numerous subfields with relevance to “evolutionary anthropology”, it surprised nobody that the Max Planck Society wants to devote the new department that will occupy our offices after 2015 to a different subfield, human behavioral ecology, a kind of evolutionarily oriented cultural anthropology. Thus, researchers in Leipzig will continue to do research on small, traditional societies, including fieldwork and large-scale databases, but with a focus on cultural and behavioural practices other than language.

But this is not the end of world-wide diversity linguistics within the Max Planck Society. Earlier this month, a new Max Planck Institute was founded in Jena (just an hour from Leipzig by train, in beautiful Thuringia), called “Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences”. It is currently in its start-up phase, and will not work at full scale before 2015. When the two directors of the former Max Planck Institute of Economics retired, the Max Planck Society decided to reorient the research of this institute and give it a focus on history, but with methods going far beyond what traditional historians have been using, in particular DNA sequencing and evolutionary methods in reconstructing linguistic and cultural evolution. The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution will be headed by Russell Gray, who has long been well-known in the area of large-scale historical comparative linguistics, especially for Indo-European (e.g. Gray & Atkinson 2003; Bouckaert et al. 2012) and Austronesian linguistics (e.g. Gray & Jordan 2000, Gray et al. 2009), but also language typology (Dunn et al. 2011; Levinson et al. 2011), and has been instrumental in making a large comparative lexical database for Austronesian languages available.

This is a very fortunate development, because the CLLD databases (World Atlas of Languages Structure, APiCS Online, etc.) that were put together and/or published by the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology will survive in this way – otherwise they would have been severely endangered, at least the web applications that make them so easy to use. Robert Forkel, the technical director of CLLD databases, will move from MPI-EVA Leipzig to MPI Jena, and more databases will probably be developed by Russell Gray and his team.

Of course, Russell Gray is not originally and not only a linguist, and his methods and publication venues are not the ones of traditional linguists. But this is precisely why the Max Planck Society decided to make him the director of this new department: They feel that historical linguistics holds a lot of potential, and that by applying new quantitative methods to the available data, significant progress can be made in understanding human history at a world-wide scale. This is not how most linguists see things. The great majority regard the relation between language and cognition as much more interesting than (large-scale) historical linguistics, and this is understandable because most linguists just work on a single language. But outside of our field, the big historical questions and the possible answers that linguists can give seem to have a much greater attraction (note that very few linguists were involved in deciding on this new department).

In this connection, I have heard two pessimistic views: On the one hand, linguists have expressed the view that researchers who only contribute quantitative methods but do not have full control over the data will make too many mistakes to make serious progress (see, e.g., Martin W. Lewis’s critique of Bouckaert et al. 2012). Linguists often privately express frustration that nonlinguists get a lot of attention for their work on language history, and they feel that real linguists should be doing this work. But I’m not pessimistic here: It’s clear that knowing a lot about languages will help, but it’s also clear that one cannot know everything, so people with different kinds of expertise should collaborate. Russell Gray has repeatedly collaborated with linguists, and all indications are that there will be some “real linguists” in his team in Jena. So if some of our colleagues outside of our narrow field have skills that allow them to place their papers in high-impact journals, that will benefit all of us. Moreover, there is an increasing number of linguists in the younger generation who are learning these quantitative tools.

Another pessimistic view is that unless linguists manage to get into the high-profile journals, they will not have the kind of funding that they deserve: Linguists should all behave like Russell Gray and his associates and try to publish in high-profile general-interest journals. Again, I’m optimistic: I don’t think that linguists are in danger of losing their funding, because language is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so we don’t have to worry that somehow the study of language will not be supported by the society. There will always be many people whose main interest is in Sanskrit meter, or in the pragmatics of Early Modern English law texts, or in the interaction between Japanese phonology and Kana symbols. One doesn’t need any knowledge of sophisticated statistical algorithms to study these phenomena, so one won’t get into Nature with one’s research. Maybe one won’t have huge research budgets, but human curiosity will always find its way to further insights in all areas of language.

Thus, even if the new Jena department may not support the kind of longer-term fieldwork and sophisticated grammatical theory that has (also) been done at MPI-EVA Leipzig, it will contribute to the larger quest of understanding the nature of human language(s) and the diversity and history of languages. Welcome to a new venture, and good luck!

When MPI-EVA holds its last big conference in early May 2015, Russell Gray will be a plenary speaker, and will present his vision. Everyone is welcome to Leipzig to say farewell to Leipzig MPI linguistics, and to welcome Jena MPI linguistics.


Bouckaert, Remco, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard & Quentin D. Atkinson. 2012. Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family. Science 337(6097). 957–960. (

Dunn, Michael, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson & Russell D. Gray. 2011. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature 473(7345). 79–82.

Gray, Russell D. & Quentin D. Atkinson. 2003. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature 426(6965). 435–439.

Gray, R. D., A. J. Drummond & S. J. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Science 323(5913). 479–483. (

Gray, Russell D. & Fiona M. Jordan. 2000. Language trees support the express-train sequence of Austronesian expansion. Nature 405(6790). 1052–1055.

Greenhill, Simon J., Blust, Robert, & Gray, Russell D. 2005. The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD).

Levinson, Stephen C., Simon J. Greenhill, Russell D. Gray & Michael Dunn. 2011. Universal typological dependencies should be detectable in the history of language families. Linguistic Typology 15. 509–534.

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Clock-time expressions in the colloquial language: some suggested universals

Language may have special (typically dial-derived) ways of giving minute-precise clock times. It appears that in some languages, the only way to do this is in a purely additive way, with the hour and the minutes in a sequence that mirrors the digital time format: Thus, Mandarin Chinese has liù diăn wŭ-shí wŭ [six hour fif-ty five] for 6:55.

But many languages are like English, allowing subtractive clock-time expressions such as five to seven, or they allow fraction words such as quarter and half (half past six, quarter to seven). Colloquially, these are often still preferred to digital-clock-derived expressions (e.g. six fifty-five), but with the ever increasing spread of digital clocks, it is probably not overly pessimistic to say that the colloquial clock-time conventions are “endangered subsystems” (Wohlgemuth & Köpl 2005) in all languages, including English.

On the basis of a recent unpublished survey of more than two dozen mostly European languages (Wett 2014), one can venture a number of universals of precise clock-time indications (i.e. indications for times that are more precise than the full hour). Of course, these are quite speculative, because the data are not sufficient to be confident that these trends are not due to accident or language contact, but they all seem to have good functional motivations. By hypothesizing that they are universal, this post will make it easier for subsequent research to confirm or disconfirm the tendencies.

(1) Precise clock-time expressions always make reference to an adjacent full hour.

Thus, no language has “eighty after five” for 6:20, “five quarters before nine” for 7:45, or the like.

(2) Only the full hour, the half hour, and the quarter hour are used as orientation points.

Thus, one may have “five after six” (6:05), or “five after half past six” (6:35), and even “five before a quarter of 11th” (10:10, i.e. “five before 10:15”), as in Catalan (falten cinc minuts per a un quart d’onze ‘five minutes missing for a quarter of 11’). But “five minutes after” is never used as an orientation point, for example, so we do not get “two before five before six” for 5:53.

(3) The only available time measure units are minutes, twelfth hours, eighth hours, quarter hours, and half hours.

Thus, no language uses third hours (e.g. “a third after six” for 6:20) or tenth hours (e.g. “a tenth after six” for 6:06). Twelfths are rare, but are attested in traditional Erzgebirge German (“eleven twelfths to seven” for 6:55). Catalan is so far the only attested language that works with half quarters, i.e. eighths (mig quart de tres ‘half quarter of three’, i.e. 14:07-14:08). Half hours and quarter hours are widespread in Europe.

(4) When the half hour is used as an orientation point, the time measure is never more than 12 minutes.

Thus, a language may have “five to half past six” (for 6:25) or even “twelve to half past six” (6:18), but never “twenty to half past six” (for 6:10) or the like. Actually, I am not aware of a language that uses this normally for 6:18, but in colloquial German, it does not seem to be excluded (and 6:20 is commonly zehn vor halb sieben ‘ten before half of seventh’)

There are two different ways in which orientation points can be used: As cardinal points (“6 hours”, i.e. 6:00) or as time periods named by an ordinal number (“the 6th hour”, i.e. 5:01–6:00). Ordinal time indicating is well-known especially from Russian, which consistently has “10 of the 6th hour” (desjat’ šestogo) for 5:10, and so on. But it occurs also in German, especially with half hours (halb sechs for 5:30), though German does not use its ordinal numerals here. This distinction leads to another universal:

(5) Ordinal time periods are always full hours.

Thus, no language has something like “5 minutes of the 2nd half of the 6th hour” for 5:35.

In Russian, this system is quite thoroughgoing: minutes, quarters and halves can be used in ordinal indications, but in southern German, only quarters and halves can be used in this way. Other German varieties allow it only for halves. Maybe this is a reflection of another universal, given in (6)?

(6) If ‘minutes’ can be used in ordinal time indications, then ‘quarters’ can be used, and if ‘quarters’ can be used, then ‘half hours’ can be used.

A few more universals concern the relationship between addition and subtraction in the cardinal system:

(7) If a language uses only cardinal hours, addition and subtraction are used for continuous segments of the hour space.

Languages may have “10 past six”, “20 past six”, etc. up to a certain point, and “10 before seven”, “20 before seven” up to a certain point, but these points never cross each other. Thus, there is no language that uses “35 past six” for 6:35, but “35 before seven” for 6:25.

(8) Addition may be used more extensively than subtraction, but not the other way round.

Thus, Italian is said to use addition up to 35 past (le sei e trentacinque for 6:35), and to begin with subtraction only with 40 past (le sette meno venti for 6:40). No language has the opposite pattern.

(9) In systems that use addition and subtraction in a parallel fashion, addition never goes beyond +35, and subtraction never goes beyond -29.

Thus, we do not find “six and three quarters” for 6:45 in a language that also has subtraction (e.g. “seven minus 10” for 6:50). (Of course, in the age of digital clocks, addition becomes more and more prevalent, so one might get speakers that use “six forty” but “ten before seven”, but this would not count as a parallel system anymore.)

(10) Subtraction is never zero-marked.

Thus, “five twenty” can mean 5:20, but never 4:40. However, zero-marking can also be used for ordinal hours (so “half six” can mean 5:30), but this is not subtraction. (But it is true that synchronically, in those German varieties that have only “half six” but not “quarter six” for 5:15, one could say that there is subtraction. It would be interesting to know whether there are pure cases of this, i.e. varieties with German-style “apparent subtraction” and no trace of the ordinal system.)

Postscript: After I wrote the above, Bernard Comrie noted, with reference to universal (2): "Actually, in the pre-digital age in England we did say things like "it's one minute before five past seven", presumably because the five-minute intervals were "really" the smallest basic intervals, and adding anything more precise was like specifying seconds." In view of this, universal (2) may have to be weakened, or rather turned into an implicational universal ("If a language uses five-minute intervals as orientation points, ...").


Wett, Annkathrin. 2014. Uhrzeitbezeichungen im Sprachvergleich. MA thesis, Leipzig University.

Wohlgemuth, Jan & Köpl, Sebastian. 2005. Endangered subsystems. In: Wohlgemuth, Jan & Dirksmeyer, Tyko (eds.), Bedrohte Vielfalt: Aspekte des Sprach(en)tods. Berlin: Weissensee, 177-186.

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Annotated corpora of small languages as refereed publications: a vision

It has often been said that the job of linguists working on a small language is not complete until they publish three major works on the language: a grammar, a dictionary, and a volume of texts.  This threefold result of extended fieldwork has been described as the “Boasian triad” (e.g. Grinevald 2001, Tsunoda 2006: 245), and ever since Bloomfield’s (1917) “Tagalog texts”, quite a few prominent (and not so prominent) field linguists published text collections (e.g. Heath 1980 on Nunggubuyu, Bollée & Rosalie 1994 on Seychelles Creole, Wichmann 1996 on Texistepec Popoluca, Noonan 1999 on Chantyal, to name but a few). Continue reading

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How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading

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Dictionaries as open-access databases: a vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading

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The necessity of grammatical structures

A great deal of digital ink has proliferated (I won't say has been 'spilled' because that would imply it was done in waste) about the question of linguistic complexity, and whether it is possible to show in a meaningful way that some languages are more or less complex than others. After reading DeGraff's (2001) and others' commentary on McWhorter's (2001) well-known article, 'The world's simplest grammars are creole grammars', I have recently come to reject the question as having any meaning, except perhaps in the impressionistic sense of complexity as being 'harder for adult language learners to acquire'. At the very least, I have yet to see a precise formulation of complexity that I am convinced captures the idea that linguists are attempting to pin down, and since I myself have no alternative definition to offer, I shall refrain from using the concept until such a definition presents itself. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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Tanah Papua

[Note: the following blog post is about a specific and rather parochial issue of geographical terminology, but since it pertains to the region of the world with the greatest linguistic diversity, about which many of us have had occasion to speak and write, I thought it might be appropriate for Diversity Linguistics.]

I am writing this from a beautiful little town called Manokwari, in a part of the world that is of great interest to linguists, being located on the island of New Guinea where some 15% of the world's languages are spoken.  However, within New Guinea, Manokwari finds itself situated in a region which, although clear and well-defined, has no straightforward way to refer to it.  Or, in other words, a place without a name. Continue reading

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The limits of curiosity

Talmy Givón in “Beyond structuralism: Should we set a priori limits on our curiosity?” (Studies in Language 37.2, 2013, pp. 413-423), answers the rhetorical question of his subtitle with an emphatic 'no'. In addition to a proponent, he is an avid practitioner of unrestrained curiosity, a curiosity that leads him to a curious presentation of intellectual history.

The rise of structuralism in the social sciences in the early 20th century, with its two towering figures, F. de Saussure and L. Bloomfield, owes its intellectual roots ... to a radical brand of empiricism — Logical Positivism — that rose at the end of the 19th century … In the intellectual climate fostered by Logical Positivism, Saussure (1915) elaborated the three reigning dogmas of structuralism (Givón 2013: 415-417)

The normal practice of historians is to presuppose that causes are antecedent to their effects, this limitation to curiosity it seems is not necessary within Givón's teleological Weltanschauung. Continue reading

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Need and Have, again

Almost two years ago, I posted on DLC a comment on an article published in Linguistic Inquiry:
After posting, I was contacted by Richard Kayne himself, and had rich discussions with him. This encouraged me to turn the posting into an article. I co-wrote it with my colleague Anton Antonov, who discovered the other counterexamples in various languages (we decided to abandon the original Japhug example as it was too complicated to explain in a few pages). The article is now published:

This article would never have been written without DLC, and it shows that this blog can foster discussions between generativists and typologists.
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A proposal for radical publication reform in linguistics: Language Science Press, and the next steps

Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? Continue reading

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Languoid, Doculect and Glossonym: Formalizing the Notion ‘Language’

Martin Haspelmath's (2013) recent post in this forum discussed the criticism by Morey et al. (2013) of the ISO 639-3 three-letter codes for language identification. In agreement with Martin, I would strongly urge linguists not to swim against the tide but to go with the flow and accept ISO 639-3 as a useful initiative for specific use-cases. The ISO 639-3 codes are not the holy grail that will solve all our problems concerning language-identification, but they have their merits. Most importantly, it is still one of the few resources that at least tries to provide a comprehensive catalogue of the world's linguistic diversity. If one criticises SIL and their Ethnologue (which is the basis of ISO 639-3), then at least one should also acknowledge that they have been working on this catalogue for decades, and in all this time no other institutionalised linguist has tried to improve, or at least parallel, their effort. Continue reading

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How typology has changed since the 1970s

Based on my experiences in the Stanford Universals Project in 1969-76, it seems to me that the substance and goals of language-typological research were the same then as they are today: the study of the distribution of structural characteristics across languages and in particular, the search for crosslinguistic similarities that are not due to genetic relatedness and areal effects.

The differences that I see are of two kinds: Continue reading

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Can language identity be standardized? On Morey et al.’s critique of ISO 639-3

Since 2007, Ethnologue’s three-letter codes for languages have had the status of an ISO standard for languages. This has considerably enhanced their status in linguistics, and some linguists now use these codes (which were primarily intended as unique identifiers for technical and industrial purposes) in their prose texts, as additional identifiers of the language(s) they are talking about. But at the recent PARADISEC conference in Melbourne, Stephen Morey, Mark W. Post and Victor A. Friedman launched a direct attack on them (Morey et al. 2013). It seems to me that this is a very useful step, because it may lead to a serious public debate of what it is that we can expect from a standard language catalogue such as Ethnologue. (Some discussion of the issues has been taking place in closed circles or small workshops, e.g. at the Leipzig language catalogue workshop in 2007, but this is the first highly critical voice at a major conference, as far as I know.) Continue reading

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On Quechua nouns and adjectives, and on description and comparison (a reply to Floyd)

In his recent post on this blog, Simeon Floyd takes exception with my characterization of his 2011 Linguistic Typology paper as “asking a wrong question”. He emphasizes that the main point of his paper is to clarify what Quechua is like, not how to call the categories, and that in general it is not appropriate to accuse field workers (including field workers of the calibre of Marianne Mithun and Nicholas Evans) of universalism or even ethnocentrism, as I supposedly did in my 2012 paper on major word classes. Continue reading

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