Confusing p-linguistics and g-linguistics: Philosopher Ludlow on “framework-free theory”

This post was prompted by a recent paper by Peter Ludlow (a Michigan/Illinois-based philosopher) on “the philosophy of generative linguistics” (2019), where he targets a 2010 paper of mine for criticism, and (quite flatteringly) pits me against Darwin. But he confuses general linguistic theory with language-particular theory, and as this confusion seems to be more widespread, it probably deserves some discussion.

Particular languages (p-languages) are immediately observable, in the sense that we can hear people talk in them (i.e. we can observe speech produced in them). But the general phenomenon of Human Language (g-language) is a more elusive concept – even in the 18th century, not all intellectuals were sure that all human groups had a p-language (see Levelt 2018), and it takes some abstraction to say that every p-language is somehow a manifestation of a more general notion of “Human Language”. In other domains, the analogous difficulties are serious: For example, are Christianity, Shintoism and Confucianism manifestations of a more general phenomenon of “Human Religion”? (And what about anthroposophy and Neotantra?)

Of course, everyone nowadays agrees that in addition to the various p-languages, there is also a general phenomenon Human Language, and we surely want to study it. But how do we go about doing this, given that it is not directly observable? There is strikingly little discussion of this question in the language sciences – as if it were clear that the study of some particular language (whether Greek, which was Aristotle’s p-language, or German, Heidegger’s p-language, or English, Pinker’s p-language) will automatically yield insights into Human Language. Wouldn’t we first have to make sure that the features of the p-language we are discussing are truly general across the world?

For some reason, many philosophers of language, and more recently even linguists, have not been worried by this problem and have simply ignored the variation. Just as Arnauld & Lancelot (1660) based their general discussion of grammar on French, Chomsky (1957) based his general discussion of grammar on English. But why should this be a respectable way to proceed? That has never been quite clear to me, and I suspect that this shortcut has been accepted primarily because our desire to speculate about Human Language has long been greater than our access to comparative data on the world’s languages.

(Of course, one good argument is the poverty of the stimulus: We are able to learn regularities that are not apparent from the speech we hear, and we do not need to study different languages to draw some general conclusions from this about our learning abilities.)

General philosophical linguistics was long marginal in our field (and clever books like von der Gabelentz (1891) and Gardiner (1927) had little impact), but this has changed since the 1960s – the idea that the study of a p-language can contribute to g-linguistics is almost universal by now. But strangely, linguists do not really seem to know how and why this is possible. Of course, when we find something highly unusual or unique in a language, then we can argue that our research has expanded the range of possibilities of Human Language (but this leads to less restrictiveness, and thus not really to any further understanding). Maybe we can use a single p-language to argue for theoretical innovations (such as probabilistic grammar, or exemplar-based models), but eventually, we will have to show that the theoretical innovations are equally relevant for all languages – because many theories do not generalize beyond the language for which they were designed.

In syntax and morphology circles, a common way in which linguists think that they can contribute to g-linguistics on the basis of a p-language is by adopting a widespread framework and modifying it slightly. For example, they can adopt the DP framework for the description of nominal phrases (familiar from the MGG community), and argue that an empty D can have novel (but not very surprising) effects (as in Erschler 2019). But this makes sense only if the framework is more than just a metalanguage – it must be claimed to be an innate set of categories and architectures (= a hypothesis of what a rich UG looks like), because otherwise there would be no theoretical point in arguing for an analysis in terms of the shared framework.

In a (2010) paper entitled “Framework-free grammatical theory”, I argued that linguists wishing to analyze/describe a single language (i.e. “p-linguists”) should not adopt one of these innate frameworks, but should build a custom framework for the purposes of their language (in other words: “describe each language in its own terms”, as urged by fieldworkers since Boas’s time). It cannot be excluded that there is a rich UG and that all languages work in terms of UG categories, but we are not close to having found the right categories, so it is best to be agnostic with respect to innate categories.

Ludlow (2019: 522) says that there are two different approaches of linguistic analysis: a bottom-up approach “that begins with the data and only then proceeds to theory construction”, and a top-down approach that collects data in the service of refining a theory. For the latter, he mentions a well-known comment made by at one point Charles Darwin (in a private letter):

“How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

Ludlow thinks that in contrast to Darwin, I advocate bottom-up investigation, “beginning with theory neutral data collection”, and he implies that I want to be an “atheoretical observer”. This is wrong, and the mistake comes from overlooking there are two kinds of theories: p-theories (theories of particular languages) and g-theories (general theories of Human Language).

Darwin is of course right that observation must be in the service of theory, but what I am concerned with in the 2010 paper is p-theories: comprehensive descriptions of particular languages (such as my 1993 grammar of Lezgian). We may not often call grammatical descriptions/analyses “theories”, but they are certainly not atheoretical data collections. Everyone who has thought in some depth about p-linguistic analysis knows that it is a complex interaction of hypothesis formation, data collection for hypothesis testing, reformuation of hypotheses, and so on. P-linguistic analysis is an eminently theoretical enterprise, regardless of wider claims about g-linguistic implications that one might wish to make. Ludlow has one passage where this becomes clear: “Simply positing the existence of word boundaries assumes a lot of theory. Morphemes are not things that we nakedly observe; they are the product of scientific theorizing” (p. 523; this can be seen abundantly in my 2011 paper on word boundaries, where I discussed possible evidence for word hypotheses in detail).

Ludlow then goes on to discuss several specific parts of my paper, showing that they are not actually atheoretical, for example the categories “Predicate” and “Topic” that I make use of in the description of Tagalog clause structure (following Schachter & Otanes 1972). But I never said that they are “atheoretical” – what I say is that they are motivated by Tagalog facts, not taken from some pre-established framework that was originally motivated by different facts from different languages. The capitalization of the terms “Predicate” and “Topic” indicates that they are emic categories, specifically designed for the purposes of describing Tagalog. They are theoretical entities from a p-theory of Tagalog syntax. They are not taken from an innate framework of pre-established categories.

It seems that it never occurred to Ludlow that one might construct a theory of a p-language that does not necessarily have implications for g-language (even though I say it clearly in the 2010 paper). The only way in which he can conceive of what I am doing is as “atheoretical” – even though I explicitly say (in the title of the paper) that I am just as theoretical as everyone else in the volume (Heine & Narrog’s handbook of linguistic analysis).

Ludlow is not a prominent figure [in linguistics] and I could simply ignore him, but my paper has been misunderstood by others (see here and here), so it is probably worth emphasizing again that all I’m saying is that p-theories should not make use of speculative ideas of what UG might possibly be like. And what is the source of the misunderstanding? I think it’s the sloppy failure to distinguish between p-linguistics and g-linguistics. One finds this in work by many of the best and most prominent linguists, e.g. in this quotation from Pinker & Jackendoff (2005: 202):

“The first [question] is which aspects of the faculty [of language] are learned from environmental input and which aspects arise from the innate design of the brain (including the ability to learn the learned parts). To take a clear example, the fact that a canine pet is called dog in English but chien in French is learned, but the fact that words can be learned at all hinges on the predisposition of children to interpret the noises made by others as meaningful signals.”

It is very odd to say that the word dog is part of the faculty of language, because this is a biological capacity, whereas the word dog is part of a tight set of linguistic conventions (namely the English language). The study of the capacity for language is part of g-linguistics, but the study of words like dog and chien is part of the p-linguistics of English and French, respectively. This is not controversial, but Pinker & Jackendoff’s sloppy formulation makes it appear as if there were no clear difference between biological capacity and particular conventions. If one talks like this, it is probably because one has forgotten that the study of language-particular coventions need not be relevant to general theories (but may require a specific p-theory, consisting of emic categories).

(P.S. The terminological distinction between “p-linguistics” and “g-linguistics”, first made in this earlier blogpost, may sound odd, but I increasingly feel that there is a real lexical gap in English, and that I need short terms for these two types of research to explain the source of misunderstandings.)


Arnauld, Antoine & Claude Lancelot. 1660. Grammaire générale et raisonnée. Port-Royal.
Chomsky, Noam A. 1957. Syntactic structures. ’s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
Erschler, David. 2019. A new argument for the DP in languages without articles.
Gardiner, Alan Henderson. 1932. The theory of speech and language.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Framework-free grammatical theory. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, 341–365. Oxforf: Oxford University Press.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45(1). 31–80.
Heine, Bernd & Heiko Narrog (eds.). 2010. The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levelt, Willem JM. 2018. Is language natural to man? Some historical considerations. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (The Evolution of Language) 21. 127–131. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.04.003.
Ludlow, Peter. 2019. The philosophy of generative linguistics: Best theory criteria. Current approaches to syntax: A comparative handbook, vol. 3, 521–547. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. doi:10.1515/9783110540253-019.
Pinker, Steven & Ray S. Jackendoff. 2005. The faculty of language: What’s special about It? Cognition 95(2). 201–236.
Schachter, Paul & Fé T. Otanes. 1972. Tagalog reference grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press.
von der Gabelentz, Georg. 1891. Die Sprachwissenschaft, ihre Aufgaben, Methoden und bisherigen Ergebnisse. Leipzig: C. H. Tauchnitz. (New edition: Language Science Press 2016,

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Martin Haspelmath (June 23, 2019). Confusing p-linguistics and g-linguistics: Philosopher Ludlow on “framework-free theory”. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from

11 thoughts on “Confusing p-linguistics and g-linguistics: Philosopher Ludlow on “framework-free theory”

  1. I myself find the labeling of academic colleagues as “non-prominent” pompous, presumptuous, unprofessional and ad hominem. Naturally the label invites a similar response from the author to whom it is attached, and if that is indeed the tacit goal, then it constitutes annoying trolling as well.

    • Thanks for your comment – maybe this was indeed inappropriate. My intention was to contextualize the interaction for the intended readership, some of whom may wonder why I am writing a blogpost to discuss a paper by a philosopher. And isn’t it normal that we have to ignore certain kinds of criticism and concentrate on countering others? (But it’s true that we are normally not honest about this – we simply don’t talk about what we ignore. So maybe I was too honest here.)

      • Stay on point. You are not a philosopher and in no position whatsoever to judge whether a colleague in another field is “prominent”. How would you know? Ludlow has written a positively reviewed book on The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics through OUP ( As a philosopher of linguistics, I certainly consider him far more prominent than you, and that (in contrast to your blog post) is not an ad hominem attack, but rather a factual observation.

        • What I meant was „prominent linguist“, but as I said, I should probably have avoided this formulation. I‘d be more interested in hearing from you concerning the content of my post – do you see anything wrong with this? I think it‘s highly relevant to all of general-theoretical linguistics, so please tell me if you think I‘m wrong.

  2. I just came across this essay:, where the famous Spanish linguist Ignacio Bosque says: “El lenguaje no está para ser usado. No usamos la respiración, no usamos la circulación de la sangre. Tampoco usamos el lenguaje.”

    (= “Language is not for being used. We don’t use breathing and blood ciculation, and we don’t use language either.”)

    OK, but we do use LANGUAGES – these are cultural tools (for communicating), just like songs, traffic rules, or soccer rules. Bosque seems to forget the distinction between g-language (= language in general, a biological property of humans) and p-languages (particular languages, cultural tools for communication).

    (This is surprising, because I thought that Spanish has two different words: “el lenguaje” for g-language, and “una lengua” for a p-language.)

  3. I am a little puzzled too: it seems logically obvious that IF there are things common to all languages, then every individual language will manifest them in some way. Can we agree on this first obvious point? However, in the absence of a deep understanding of all possible human languages simultaneously, it is rather difficult to know, when looking at that one language, which aspects are necessary and which contingent. The real question is the right way to proceed. Looking shallowly at many languages can often miss the internal organic genius of the individual exemplars. Every time I have seen broad swathe typological work on a language I happen to know rather well, I find even the crudest descriptive facts startlingly wrong. So, second and obvious point that I think we can all agree on is that we need many different linguists working on achieving deep understanding of many different languages from different language families. Now comes the tricky part. What methodology do the individual linguistic researchers apply to their study of their languages? Do they take categories from received wisdom, collected abstractions from many other languages, linguists and theoretical frameworks, or do they try to find them emergent from the data? Can we not agree that in practice, all working linguists use a combination of the two. Doing the first thing is a crude caricature, in practice good linguists avoid this, but everyone is human and we all know it is hard to see outside our own unexamined assumptions at time. But the second strategy is also an unrealistic caricature. This is because categories cannot in fact be constructed purely inductively, but in a constant dialectic with hypothesis formation. Hypothesis formation in turn is informed by the linguists own expectations (formed via combination of experience and theoretical intuition). It is simply a mistake to think that it is possible to proceed purely inductively to create the individual p-grammars. Also, it may be a methodological mistake to attempt to do so. As an experienced linguist/fieldworker one has a lot of implicit expert knowledge and this informs hypothesis formation. If p-grammars were constructable purely by induction, we could let computers do it for us. It is simply a caricature (there´s that word again) of generative linguists´ methods to say that we import analyses wholesale from English, for example. The guiding principles we are assuming are common are in fact extremely abstract like for example, we are always looking for sensitivity to hierarchy, and we have an expectation that pronominal systems will be sensitive to participant vs. non-participant in the act of speaking. No linguist I know has a particular g-grammar in their head, since we do not know yet what the most general human language principles are. In my opinion it is a category mistake—- g-level things are a completely different level of abstraction. Conversely, nearly every linguist I know who is trying to come up with p-grammars for particular languages, is doing some combination of g-grammar study and p-grammar study, because all p-grammars are particular embodiments of whatever it is sits at the g-level. If those things are highly abstract, possibly even non language specific, then they will manifest in language in correspondingly abstract ways. Are our disagreements substantive? Methodological? Or crudely ideological?

    • Many thanks, Gilliam, for joining the discussion! These are really important issues, because eventually we want a science of language and languages where everything fits together – and much of it doesn’t at the moment. – You raise too many issues for me to react to all of them here, but let me just say that I don’t think that it’s true that “it is simply a mistake to think that it is possible to proceed purely inductively to create the individual p-grammars” – at least in the sense that one doesn’t need to know about categories of other languages in order to describe a particular language. Of course, one makes intermediate p-hypotheses before arriving at a satsifactory p-linguistic description (or “p-theory”), but one does not need any g-linguistic “theory” or “g-framework” in order to describe a particular language.

  4. Of course, I agree with every word, but one formulation puzzles me:

    “It is very odd to say that *the word dog is part of the faculty of language*…”

    That’s not how I parse their sentence:

    _”To take a clear example, the fact that [a canine pet is called dog in English but chien in French] is learned”_

    Are you parsing it differently, or did I miss something?

    • Pinker & Jackendoff say that “aspects of the faculty [of language]” are learned, but I find this a very odd formulation. Clearly, part of an English speaker’s ability to speak English is due to learning, and part of it is due to an innate capacity. But it’s this latter capacity that I would call “faculty of language” – whereas the learned aspect is the regularities of English. These regularities are part of a speaker’s knowledge of English (= the subject of p-linguistic study), but not part of “the faculty of language” (I would say).

  5. I pretty much agree with what you’re saying but I’m a bit puzzled by this:

    “But I never said that they are “atheoretical” – what I say is that they are motivated by Tagalog facts, not taken from some pre-established framework that was originally motivated by different facts from different languages. The capitalization of the terms “Predicate” and “Topic” indicates that they are emic categories, specifically designed for the purposes of describing Tagalog.”

    I get the point about ‘predicate’ and ‘topic’ fitting the Tagalog data but surely their very use in the p-linguistic context carries with them a g-linguistic load. There are hardly any languages that ‘predicate’ and ‘topic’ could not follow from the data. So, by using them, you are making an implicit g-linguistic statement, namely, feature X of Tagalog is of the same type as feature Y in English, etc.

    You are never approaching a grammar of a new language without some ‘basic linguistic theory’ (to use Dixon’s term) or framework (I thought you were saying the same thing but the Tagalof example does not fit). That’s not a bad thing but it will always muddy the g/p linguistics boundaries. I think what you are calling g-linguistics might be better thought of as f-linguistics – linguistics of the faculty of language.

    In some way, the old tripartite distinction of philology – linguistics – philosophy/psychology of language – that would have made sense to most people until Chomsky – is another way to think about this.

    I would also like to suggest a warning whether we even want to be that confident about the boundaries of what language is when we unleash our f-linguistic speculation. See

    • The terms “Predicate” and “Topic” used for Tagalog are of course meant to be transparent, but the capital letters indicate that they are NOT meant “to carry with them a g-linguistic load”. They are purely mnemonic.

      I don’t think that it is necessarily true that “we are never approaching a grammar of a new language without some ‘basic linguistic theory’ (to use Dixon’s term) or framework”. First of all, there are several traditions that described a language from scratch, like Aristotle (who didn’t rely on any model in his attemot to describe Greek), and Panini in ancient India. Second, there are many linguists who propose particular descriptions for particular models that are unprecedented. True, there is no description that only makes use of unprecedented notions for an entire language (because languages exhibit so many similarities), but I think that descriptions that are creative and independent of the tradition are often the best ones. For instance, Bloomfield’s description of English in terms of a “Determiner” concept was excellent (he freed himself of the Greek-Latin tradition, that described demonstratives as kinds of adjectives). But descriptions that find “determiners” also in Arabic (where demonstratives and articles are not in the same slot) are poor and Anglocentric.

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