Nick Evans on the uniqueness of each language and on language comparison

For good reasons, Nicholas (“Nick”) Evans is one of the world’s most prominent linguists. Among his numerous achievements, the best known among experts may be the outstanding grammatical descriptions of Kayardild (1995) and Bininj Kunwok (2003), as well as his work on insubordination (e.g. Evans & Watanabe 2016) and reciprocals (e.g. Evans et al. 2011). But to a wider group of readers, he is of course well-known through the overview paper Evans & Levinson (2009), and the 2009 book “Dying words”, which gives a beautiful nonspecialist overview of worldwide linguistic diversity, its documentation, and its comparison.

Like many great representatives of our discipline, Evans has contributed both to highlighting the structural uniqueness of each language and to efforts at comparing languages at a larger scale. There is a certain tension between the uniqueness of languages and their comparison, and in the last section below, I will say a few more words about why I chose to focus on Evans’s contribution to these issues in this blogpost.

Structural uniqueness

Each language has unique properties and categorizations, and our descriptions must respect these. Somewhat poetically, we can perhaps (using Sapir’s words) talk about a “genius” of a language. It is in particular Franz Boas who gets credited with emphasizing this since the early 1900s:

“Boas made explicit many of the tenets that have become axiomatic in the best descriptive work: the importance of describing each language and each culture on their own terms rather than importing inappropriate European models, the need to discover the inner design of each language inductively through the study of texts, and the scientific responsibility to produce as undistorted a record as possible by setting grammar alongside a comprehensive dictionary and text collection” (Evans 2009: 36)

In another passage of the same book, Evans expresses the same idea in similar terms:

“No matter how hard the linguist has tried to be comprehensive in their grammatical description, and to represent the functionings of the language in a way that does justice to its own unique genius, there will always be phenomena they have overlooked or failed to understand.” (Evans 2009: 223)

This uniqueness is of course reflected in Evans’s own descriptions of Kayardild (1995) and Bininj Kunwok (2003). (A beautiful example involving a Kayardild kinship term is cited below.)

The dangers of carrying over our traditional concepts to all languages

The Boas-Sapir-Whorf skepticism toward the traditional method of carrying over European categories to other languages is well known among comparative linguists. Authors such as Dahl (1990), Haspelmath (2001), and Cysouw (2011) have noted that it may actually be the European languages that are unusual in a number of ways, so we should not take the structures that are familiar from them as a baseline. We have a constant tendency to do this, but we should resist it. As Gil (2001) noted, a good primary-data linguist (“fieldworker”) needs to “unlearn” our ingrained prejudices and be open to surprises.

That any influence from European models should be minimized is now widely recognized among fieldworkers. For example, Epps (2011: 648) says that describers should “produce descriptions in formats that will enable and facilitate comparison across languages, but also remain true to the languages themselves, without forcing them into ill-fitting predetermined categories (Gil 2001; Haspelmath 2007; 2010).” Mithun (2001: 51) highlights the importance of collecting natural texts if we want to “learn about the language in its own terms”, and Chelliah & De Reuse (2011) simply presuppose the need to liberate oneself from a Eurocentric perspective when they assess 19th century linguists, who had not done this fully yet:

“While some early fieldworkers perceived that it was necessary to describe the language as much as possible in its own terms, rather than making descriptions conform to the mold of say, Latin or Sanskrit grammar, it remains true that the large majority of early writers were limited by known grammatical patterns.” (Chelliah & De Reuse 2011: 64-65)

These days, we should no longer be limited in this 19th-century way, and let the languages speak for themselves. As Evans (2009) writes about Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the early advocates of the systematic and open-minded study of diverse languages:

“The sum total of all cognitive processes enacted in all existing languages at all times of human history constitutes the sum total of all ‘world recognition’ accessible to man.”  This is no drifting and facile relativism, but sets out an immense challenge to philological scholarship: that of gradually drawing nearer to reality through the sensitive and far-reaching study of the different vantage points that each language can give us on the world, through the legacy of what has been forged by each people’s distinctive attempt to grasp reality, blazing their own thought-paths down through the millennia.” (Evans 2009: 3)

Describing different languages from our narrow perspective is thus also a kind of lack of respect for other people’s cultural heritage.

The metalanguage-theory conflation

Dryer (2006) has pointed out very clearly that it is a programmatic feature of generative linguistics that the metalanguage (the “formal framework”) for description/analysis should at the same time be explanatory. This seems quite wrong, as it is different from what most other sciences do (except perhaps physics?), and Evans & Levinson (2009) arrive at the same diagnosis. Concerning the idea of Optimality Theory (OT) that “the grammar of one language inevitably incorporates claims about the grammars of all languages”, they say, quite rightly:

“Instead of putting the filtering where it belongs, in cultural system evolution across generations, OT effectively burdens each individual mind with a précis of the functional history of all known human languages, and loads the entire optimization process onto on-line grammatical computation… This conflation of the metalanguage with the object of description is a peculiar trick of the generative tradition… The complex representational structures look undermotivated, and covert processes proliferate where alternative models deftly avoid them… Once explanatory theories hook external factors (e.g. psycholinguistic or evolutionary factors) into the account, this conflation of cognition and metalanguage can be dropped.” (Evans & Levinson 2009: 474)

The conclusion is thus that the metalanguage for description must primarily be adequate for the language in question. Explanatory theories can be built in a next step, with whatever concepts are appropriate for them. Such theories will usually involve comparison between languages, so we first need comparative concepts before we can then link our generalizations to broader explanatory factors.

Comparison and the traditional categories

Comparison has sometimes been attempted on the basis traditional categories, but this is problematic. Linguistics has many traditional terms that everyone knows from the textbooks and from salient exemplars, e.g. “verb” and “complementizer”, but also terms that are primarily used for non-European languages such as “classifier” (e.g. Aikhenvald 2000) and “ideophone” (e.g. Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001). However, we cannot assume that these traditional terms exhaust the possible categories in human languages:

“Further unfamiliar word classes are continuously being unearthed that respect only the internal structural logic of previously undescribed languages. Even when typologists talk of “ideophones”, “classifiers”, and so forth, these are not identical in nature across the languages that exhibit them… no two languages have any word classes that are exactly alike in morphosyntactic properties or range of meanings (Haspelmath 2007).” (Evans & Levinson 2009: 435)

Indeed, since the beginning of modern comparative linguistics (such as Wilhelm von Humboldt’s work of the 1820s), new phenomena have been found and have been given new labels (Humboldt coined the terms incorporation and agglutination). And here’s a similar quotation, again citing my (2007) paper approvingly:

“[Traditional terms like subject, adjective, inflection, syllable, pronoun…] are not absolute universals… Rather, they re descriptive labels, emerging from structural facts of particular languages… Consequently, for the most part they do not have precise definitions shared by all researchers, or equally applicable to all languages (Haspelmath 2007).” (Evans & Levinson 2009: 439)

As a result, it is not immediately clear how rigorous comparison between languages should be carried out. What kinds of concepts work across languages?

Comparison through innate categories?

Many linguists have tried to solve the comparability problem by adopting the idea that there is a small set of building blocks which is part of the innate blueprint for grammars (I have also called this the “Mendeleyevian Vision”). In the responses to Evans & Levinson (2009), this is advocated, for example, by Nevins (2009: 461), who says that comparison should be done by means of “formal universals”, which in phonology “are constituted by the analytic elements that human minds employ in constructing representations of sound structure. … [they] refer to the set of available data structures (e.g., binary features, metrical grids, autosegmental tiers) and the possible operations on them that can be used in constructing a grammar of a language.”

But as Levinson & Evans (2010: 2738) note, there is no reason to make this assumption, because “even the strongest universal patterns could emerge from multiple cnstraints in populations of language users and learners, without residing in the heads of speakers”. Evans & Levinson regard the innateness claim for the formal categories of a grammatical system as “a fundamental category mistake, like confusing mathematics with the object it describes – a nautilus shell exhibits a logarithmic spiral, but it doesn’t use logarithms to produce its shell.” More recently, Evans put it like this:

“[For comparative purposes, we have been] developing an ontology for calibrating coding (and for quantifying uncertainty/ambiguity of analysis), and functional accounts of distributions. Though typologists have been steadily working away at this, this remains a work-in-progress, leaving linguists “like chemists without a list of the elements, or physicists with no account of particles” (Corbett 2012: xiv). “ (Evans 2016: 507)

Since we do not have a list of elements, we are very far from the Mendeleyevian Vision, that there is a smallish sets of elements which can be used both to describe and compare languages. Thus, we have to make our own comparative concepts, as Levinson & Evans (2010) recognize:

“Language-specificity of categories raises problems for [comparison and explanation], as the typologists have become increasingly aware (Dryer 1997; Haspelmath 2007; 2010). It doesn’t follow that comparison is impossible, only that it has to be undertaken in an auxiliary language designed to generalize over language-specific categories.” (Levinson & Evans 2010: 2737).

There are different types of comparative concepts in this special “auxiliary language”. Let us start with etic comparative concepts.

Etic comparative concepts: Nonverbal stimuli

One way to avoid the pitfalls of traditional terms is to gather fresh data (rather than to rely on existing descriptions), based on a set of comparative concepts created by the comparativist: Nonverbal stimuli (such as pictures or videos) that can be held constant across languages. This is the well-known “Nijmegen method”, illustrated nicely by the field manuals which can be found on the MPI Nijmegen site). One such project was led by Nick Evans, on “Reciprocals Across Languages”, which was based on video clips shown to speakers of 20 different languages (Evans et al. (eds.) 2004; 2011). In the introduction of the resulting book, the editors write about the methdology of semantic typology:

“Within semantic typology, there is growing realisation of then need to use standardised stimuli in studies of categorisation, so as to place all languages on a level playing field, rather than privileging one as the source from which translations from the others are sought. …this also provides a way of subjecting phenomena to cross-linguistic comparison without having to predefine the categories of interest in a way that may import accidental characteristics of some familiar reference languages.” (Evans et al. 2011: 24)

By using nonverbal stimuli, one makes sure not to confuse the etic concepts for comparison with emic categories of particular languages (especially with emic categories of well-known European languages). But on the other hand, describing such emic categories is also an interesting aspect of research on smaller languages:

“We stress that in no way does the gathering of carefully matched data stand in the way of discovering language-specific categories, since the structure of this book balances systematic multifactorial comparison with traditional language-specific analyses in Chapters 3-18. Again and again, these chapters emphasise language-particular semantic preoccupations… These differences in the meaning ranges of constructions emerge from the intersection of language-internal exploration with the comparative grid made available by a set of systematic stimuli – the two approaches complement each other, together yielding more than the sum of the parts.” (Evans et al. 2011: 25)

So while description and comparison complement each other, they do not depend on each other. Comparison depends on a comparative grid which is as independent of any particular language as possible in practice, and description “emerges from the structural facts” of each language. While the comparative grid certainly provides useful data for an emic description, this grid can be neither sufficient nor necessary for determining the language-particular structures.

Etic comparative concepts that can be described verbally

Reciprocals are a particularly varied domain, and there are areas of semantic typology where verbal description is in fact possible. One such domain is kinship, where researchers often use nonverbal notation (the well-known kinship diagrams used by anthropologists, e.g. Murdock’s six patterns of kinship), but this nonverbal notation is quite useless for the speakers. If you are an anthropologist who wants to ask me how I describe my father’s sister’s son in my home language, it is best to use ordinary language (e.g. the target language, in this case German, though other languages would work very well, too; incidentally, the answer is the loanwords Cousin [kuzɛŋ], though my mother still used the older native term Vetter).

Likewise, for comparison of kin terms, we can get quite far by using ordinary-language terms like “parent/child”, “male/female”, “older/younger”. This is how Evans (2011: 509-510) describes the contrasts between the kinship systems for siblings in English, Indonesian, Japanese and Kayardild:


We can see that each language has its own system, and using the comparative concepts for the description of each language would be quite nonsensical: “Older/younger” plays no role in English, the sex of the referent plays no role in Indonesian (kakak simply means ‘older sibling’), while Japanese has for terms where both of these concepts do play a role. However, this does not mean that there is a closed set of concepts by which all languages can be described and compared at the same time. To describe Kayardild, we need a still different concept: the relation between the sex of the speaker and the sex of the referent. The word kularrind refers to a sibling of the opposite sex, and just as it makes no sense to say that English sister has two meanings (‘older sister’ and ‘younger sister’), it makes no sense to say that Kayardild kularrind has four different meanings (‘ani’, ‘ane’, ‘otooto’, and ‘imooto’, to use the Japanese terms).

Again, we see clearly that comparison is separate from description, even when the comparative concepts can be readily expressed verbally, and thus might be mistaken for categories of a language. Levinson & Evans (2010: 2736) are very clear on distinguishing four “basic kinds of linguistic undertaking”:

(a) accessible language description,

(b) formal analysis of a language,

(c) language comparison, and

(d) the development of explanatory theories.

These are related, but distinguishable tasks – and (c), the “task of mapping the world’s diverse linguistic structures”, crucially involves “developing cross-linguistically viable ontologies”, i.e. universally applicable comparative concepts.


Thus, languages are comparable because we make them comparable, through artificial comparative concepts – either of the etic type, as with video stimuli, or of the verbal type, as with the typology of kinship terms. They are not comparable by themselves – each language has a different set of emic categories. Among linguists who do not subscribe to the Chomskyan hope of finding an innate blueprint for languages consisting of a specific toolkit for grammars, this is really uncontroversial.

But the stereotypes of the terms and categories that we inherited from the Greek and Roman grammarians is powerful, and we sometimes create new stereotypes (e.g. “incorporation” or “serial verb construction”, which are often treated as if they were entities that exist independently of particular languages or their comparisons). For this reason, linguists such as Dryer (1997), Croft (2001), Gil (2001), Lazard (2005), Cristofaro (2009) and Haspelmath (2010) have reasserted the old insight, without making any claims of novelty. There was some discussion of these issues in 2016 on the Lingtyp list (and in a number of 2016 papers in the journal LT), and at the 2017 ALT conference in Canberra, there was an interesting plenary panel on comparability organized by Nick Evans, with nice talks, among others, by the ANU scientists Lindell Bromham (bringing in the perspective from biology) and Kim Sterelny (bringing in a more general perspective from philosophy), and also by typologists Ulrike Zeshan  and Grev Corbett. After the talks, David Gil asked how these talks related to the issues discussed in 2016 (by Dryer, Croft, Gil, Moravcsik, and others), and the answer was: “No relation – we wanted to discuss comparability in different terms here.” That was a puzzling answer, because Nick Evans, at least, has long been emphasizing the same kinds of issues that led Dryer, Lazard and others to insist on the description of each language in its own terms, and he has proposed the same kinds of solutions. So part of the reason I wrote this blogpost is to dispel any misconception that there are any substantive disagreements among comparative linguists (who are not committed to the Chomskyan ideas) and fieldworkers about how to compare and how to describe languages. There are none. (The serious disagreement with the Chomskyans persist, however, and I wish I understood them better…)


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Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2020, January 24). Nick Evans on the uniqueness of each language and on language comparison. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

7 thoughts on “Nick Evans on the uniqueness of each language and on language comparison

  1. A point about Boas is that although he didn’t assume the traditional grammatical categories of Greek and Latin, he and his students and Handboook contributors did assume the traditional framework of the standard handbooks of Greek and Latin, including grammatical relations (often subject, first object and second object), the idea of ‘grammatical dimensions’ similar to gender, number and case, just with different values and sometimes names and functions. This framework can be regarded as an informal precursor to Dependency Grammar, Lexical Functional Grammar and Relational Grammar at least. One can challenge the idea that these frameworks have empirical consequences, but I think they do, for example on the basis that classic LFG and dependency grammar don’t seem to do very well with various scopal phenomena involving adjectives, as complained about by me in Andrews (2017)}, with a fix suggested. Whereas Minimalism and HPSG (and GPSG, once upon a time) do not have this problem. It also seems pretty obvious that if Boas were confronted with the evidence for syntactic ergativity, mixed ergativity, and other departures from the traditional scheme of grammatical relations, he would buy it, but getting rid of the idea of grammatical relations or some rough equivalent would be another matter.

    As I think I’ve said before, the development of these ideas is very slow and difficult, and there is no practical alternative to people reusing ones from previously encountered descriptions. The perspective of algorithmic complexity theory as expounded in Chater et al. (2015) seems relevant; it is possible that a formal idea such as ‘features’ that gets re-used in multiple parts of the description of one language could arise as an aspect of compressing the data, but would it be fast enough, given the speed of basic syntax acquisition? So I think some kind of UG remains essential in practice for formally explicit description, although we might come up with multiple, different-looking frameworks that cannot be empirically distinguished in any convincing way (but ezch preceeded by a sequence of inadequate ones).

    • Actually, Boas didn’t have “grammatical relations”, because this term was invented by Perlmutter & Postal in 1974 (based on some remarks in Chomsky 1965). I don’t know when “first/second object” came up, but “indirect/direct object” goes back to 18th/19th century French grammar. The idea that subjects are on a par with objects did not really make it into the mainstream until well after 1960s (German grammar invented “Satzglieder” in the 1950s, but this was not picked up by Anglophone linguistics). And the “grammatical dimensions” were not adopted fully by the American structuralists, because they were confronted with a lot more than with the classical seven (case/number/gender/modality/tense/aspect/voice). I think that that was right – because we still don’t know whether we can say that “a verb inflects for evidentiality”, or that a language has both a “causative voice and a non-causative voice”. So we are still carrying a lot of pre-Boasian baggage with us. Boas’s work is not finished yet. – As for scopal phenomena, they are evidently quite diverse, and trying to reduce everything to either constituency or dependency is obviously wrong. So LFG is basically on the right track by proliferating levels. We don’t seem to have a good way of constraining them, and maybe it doesn’t matter, because the constraints are not architectural anyway.

      • Hmm Boas appears to me to have accepted the subject-predicate division to the extent of assuming that all sentences had subjects even when the subject agreement marker had objective form and there was no relevant case-marker (Chinook grammar in vol I of the Handbook, downloadable as pdf from google books), but the discussion makes no use of this as an explicit division, and the treatment of the syntax, as far as it goes, treats subject, two objects (first and second according to relative order of the markers in the verb) and an ‘indirect object’ (second argument of a verb with an objectively marked ‘subject’) as pretty much on a par, in the discussions of both verbal marking of arguments and of word order.

        In addition, a search on ‘predicate’ in the Chinook grammar shows him perhaps using the word in the contemporary logical sense: “Certain prefixes are found in many verbs immediately preceding the root, and suggest transitiveness or intransitiveness in the verb, or in some way point out the relation between the subject, predicate, and object.” What he really means by ‘predicate’ in this and the other grammars would take some digging to work out, I think (could he have read anything by Frege or Peirce?). The term is neither defined nor used very often in vol I of the handbook, if pdf search is to believed. The Classical handbooks iirc don’t seem to make that much of a deal of subject vs predicate either (and the Smythe that I just looked at certainly does not).

        So I would agree that Boas does not develop an abstract concept of ‘grammatical relation’, but would continue to claim that he uses an implicit version of it in the organization of the grammatical description, thereby following the Classical handbook model, perhaps a bit more closely than actually warranted by the data. I don’t think there is much reason to expect someone to come up with the general abstract concept of grammatical relation until they start writing formal grammars, at which point the commonalities of behavior between subject, object etc. become something you want to capture in your formalism (such as perhaps by writing something like [OBJ [PERS II]] as the specification of a head-marking affix, and similary for treatment of dependent marking, relative order, and assignment of semantic roles.

        As for the ‘grammatical dimensions’ (called by him ‘grammatical categories’, a term I don’t like because parts of speech, phrase types, etc can also reasonably called grammatical categories), the structuralists were very diverse, and observations about Boas don’t necessarily apply to any of the others. He seems to me to have followed the Classical models reasonably closely, including not positing distinctions where they are not evident in the data (no dual in Latin, no ablative in Greek), but perhaps in a more thoroughgoing way than was necessary for them (due to the similarities between Greek and Latin), not postulating dimensions with no evidence, and accepting additional ones where there was evidence supported them.

  2. ““Older/younger” plays no role in English, the sex of the referent plays no role in Indonesian (kakak simply means ‘older sibling’), while Japanese has for terms where both of these concepts do play a role.” I am not sure why you are so confident on this. I would say it is an hypothesis one could test to see whether indeed e.g. older/younger plays no role in English (it seems to me that ‘older sister’ is probably more frequent and more of a collocation than, say, ‘brighter sister’), and/or in English speakers (whether in the end we cannot find that ‘older sister’ is stored in the same kind of way in English speakers as it is in Japanese speakers).

    Maybe this is the old generativist in me, but I think this is a better way to go about it than to assume a priori that as soon as we see some difference between two languages, than all we can say about that is that they are different.

    • Yes, other languages can suggest hypotheses – this is a very important function of the cross-linguistic perspective. But crucially, looking at other languages NEVER resolves hypotheses – thinking this means committing the General Category Fallacy ( As for the English word “sister”, I assumed that we know what it means (this might be subject to revision or refinement, as you suggest). But the point remains the same. (However, note that by “language description”, I mean a description of the social conventions, not of mental representations of these conventions – the latter raises a new class of issues that I generally leave aside).

      Even in order to say that two languages are different, we need to compare them. In generative linguistics, comparison is often done in a naive way, because it is simply ASSUMED that there is a universal set of categories that all languages are made up of. I have not seen an actual argument in favour of this strategy. Chomsky (1957) (and all subsequent works by him and his followers) simply ignored the Boasian lessons, as far as I know.

  3. An article about one of my personal heroes, written by another 🙂
    The kinship term table here has to be corrected as 1) it lacks “male speaker” labels on its columns and 2) the placement of Japanese “ane” and “otōto” is mixed up.

    • Thanks for pointing this out! (It confirms my generalization that typologists’ errors in examples are typically irrelevant to the point they are trying to make – still it is better to avoid such errors!) I have corrected the image (the error came from an earlier version of the paper, but it has been corrected in the latest published version of Evans’s article)..

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