In a number of publications over the years, Stephen Anderson has advanced the idea that phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena should often be explained diachronically, rather than with reference to the innate Language Faculty (a.k.a. Universal Grammar) (cf. Anderson 2005; 2008; 2016). For someone who has been a very prominent generative phonologist and morphologist (cf. Anderson 1974; 1992), this is remarkable. In the generative meaninstream, very few linguists have even entertained the possibility that core properties of grammars (such as distinctive features and alternations in phonology, or case-marking rules in syntax) might be explained by anything other than UG. The notion that “linguistic theory” (= what generative linguists are engaged in) consists in elucidating the constraints of our cognitive apparatus on possible mental grammars is still widely taken for granted. Thus, Anderson’s arguments are interesting and deserve consideration (see also Plank (2007) and Cristofaro (2012) for similar considerations).
In the 2016 paper, Anderson focuses on phonology and goes so far as to claim that “there are at present no convincingly demonstrated substantive universals governing the set of possible regularities”, citing work by J. Blevins (e.g. 2004) for phonological alternations (such as final devoicing) and by Mielke (2008) on distinctive features. For morphosyntax, he gives the example of the association between ergative alignment and perfective aspect, and between accusative alignment and imperfective aspect, and he also cites Aristar (1991) for a diachronic explanation of word order correlations.
But even after reading the three papers by Anderson, it wasn’t quite clear to me what exactly he is claiming (or whether he isn’t really making a claim, just voicing serious doubts about the importance of UG for understanding grammatical patterns; cf. the pessimistic conclusion of the 2008 paper).
In the 2005 paper, he distinguishes between three possible explanatory factors: (i) input data, (ii) the learning process, and (iii) what is cognitively possible (“the Language Faculty”; these distinctions reappear later, but somewhat less clearly). As a result of a narrow view of diachronic change, he regards diachronic change as belonging to the first factor, and he stresses how important this factor is. He concludes that “things are as we find them in substantial part because that is the outcome of the shaping effects of history, not because the nature of the Language Faculty requires it” (2016: 18).
I think this constitutes progress over the mainstream generative view, but Anderson doesn’t make it fully clear what exactly it is that he wants to explain, and one doesn’t get a sense of how the historical developments can have “shaping effects” if they are as “contingent” as he implies they are.
Linguists want as many explanations as possible, of course – not only explanations of universals (and universal tendencies), but also explanations of particular phenomena of particular languages. For example, why does Lezgian have final voicing, as in gat-u [summer-OBL] vs. gad [summer]? It turns out that a diachronic explanation of this quirk is available. A similar example from English is the voicing in singular/plural pairs like thief/thieves, which is synchronically puzzling but turns out to be a well-understood remnant of an earlier phonetically grounded sound change. The great discoveries of 19th century linguists (whose abandonment Anderson regards as premature) were mostly of this type: Explanations of synchronic idiosyncrasies as remnants of earlier patterns. And indeed, quite possibly, a very large part of the patterns we see are idiosyncratic and not more than remnants from accidental developments of the past (just as many other cultural patterns that surround us are arbitrary and remnants of the past: the layout of streets on our old cities, the ownership of the land, the way we dress (e.g. men’s ties), the games we play, etc.).
But the programme of linguists in the second half of the 20th century became more ambitious: They wanted to explain general properties of human language(s). They wanted universal scope of their explanatory theories. This applied equally to generative theories such as Chomsky & Halle’s Sound pattern of English and in the Principles & Parameters framework in syntax, and to functional theories such as Bybee’s Morphology and Hawkins’s Efficiency and complexity in grammars. Generative theories achieve universal scope by hypothesizing that the gaps in attested systems are due to innate constraints on possible grammars, while functional theories achieve universal scope by explaining universal tendencies through functional and cognitive biases in language use (which might also be innate but are not domain-specific).
Now my question to Anderson is: Can diachronic explanations also account for universal tendencies (not only for idiosyncrasies, as seen earlier)? Anderson is not as clear about this as he should be. One of his examples in the 2016 paper, the lack of a nominative reflexive in Icelandic, clearly concerns an idiosyncratic phenomenon of one language, Icelandic. The other examples do seem to concern universal tendencies (and the 2005 paper is explicitly about morphological universals), but Anderson does not say clearly that the universal tendencies are due to universal factors. He repeatedly talks about “common paths of diachronic development”, but “common” is not the same as “universal”. If tone “commonly” develops from the loss of a syllable-final consonant, then this may lead us to expect that tone languages have open syllables, but if there is another, equally (or more) common source for tone (maybe a syllable-initial consonant quality), then the expectation disappears. In order to explain a universal tendency by diachrony, one needs to claim that there is a diachronic asymmetry: Not only is the diachronic path A > B common, but the reverse diachronic path B > A is impossible (or uncommon). In other words, we need a notion of universal directionality of language change if we want to explain universals by diachrony.
It seems that in the case of final devoicing, there are good phonetic reasons for postulating such a universal, but what about the association between ergative case and perfective aspect? Anderson notes that there are multiple ways in which perfective constructions give ergative patterns, and imperfective constructions give accusative patterns, which he says “happen to converge”, resulting in a “synchronically accidental correlation”. But if the correlation is accidental, the prediction would be that we should see an equal number of cases of the opposite development, once we look at enough languages. In other words, we would not be explaining a universal (or universal tendency), but we would be explaining a set of idiosnycrasies that happen to be shared by a few languages.
Thus, in order to convince me that we should pursue diachronic explanations of universals, I need to see evidence that the diachronic mechanism is universal, too. Accidental diachronic developments cannot give rise to universal patterns, by definition.
But what would a universal diachronic mechanism look like? Generative linguists have repeatedly denied that there are universals of diachrony (cf. Haspelmath 1999, a review article on a book by David Lightfoot), and when functional linguists have proposed them (e.g. universals of grammaticalization, Lehmann (2015)), they have generally regarded these universals of change as consequences of universal cognitive and functional biases of language use, not as due to the “transmission of grammars across generations” (the only mechanism of change that Anderson recognizes, 2016: 5).
How would this fit into Anderson’s three explanatory factors ((i) input data, (ii) the learning process, and (iii) what is cognitively possible)? Probably it would be part of (i), but for a functional perspective, “input data” sounds terribly impoverished. There are a large number of general patterns in language use, and this is what one can (and should) relate to language change. But if the diachronic changes that result in universal patterns are themselves due to universal usage patterns, how helpful is it to say that synchronic patterns are due to diachronic change, rather than to synchronic factors? Wouldn’t it be more insightful to say that universal usage biases result in universal grammatical patterns via diachrony?