Many linguists think that broad cross-linguistic comparison is sometimes “too shallow”, and that instead, language universals can be detected only if they are based on “in-depth”, “abstract” and “detailed” analyses. Here I give reasons to think that this is the wrong approach. This discussion is not new (cf. Comrie 1981; Coopmans 1983), but it needs to be revisited, because this erroneous idea remains very strong in the discipline. Rather than in-depth analyses, I suggest that we need rigorous objective testing of generalizations, as elsewhere in science. Of course, there is no a priori reason to think that in-depth analyses should be incompatible with objective testing, but below I explain why in practice, they do not go together (for the current generations of linguists – maybe the distant future will bring changes).
“In conclusion, assessing the configurational (or other architectural) properties of language requires much detailed analytical work on individual languages: the simple scrutiny of superficial properties will not allow us to reach firm comparative conclusions, such as the proper assessment of hypotheses on the universal structure of language. As soon as a detailed analytical work is undertaken, much as in the cases just quoted, a rich invariant structure always emerges from the variability of surface arrangements.” (Rizzi 2014: 29)
Anders Holmberg puts it as follows:
“as linguistic theory progresses…, the more confident we can be that the observations are accurate, and the more abstract the properties can be that are subject to typological research” (Holmberg 2016: 363)
These authors are generative syntacticians, and these quotations are typical of the emphasis on detailed and deep language-particular studies in the generative tradition. Instead of describing entire languages in reference grammars, generative linguists usually encourage their students to work on small corners of a single language. In the past, the bigger languages tended to be in the focus (e.g. English, Italian, Japanese, Chinese), but more recently, the in-depth study of particular phenomena in smaller languages (including dialects of languages such as Italian or Dutch) has become much more prominent in this tradition.
Now there is certainly nothing to be said against the in-depth study of particular phenomena in small languages – one of my first papers (in 1991) was an in-depth study of the ergative construction in Lezgian, which I recalled in a recent invited talk at the TMP conference in Moscow. However, how do we get from language-particular phenomena to universals? This is a question that is rarely addressed by generative grammarians.
By contrast, comparative grammarians that do not have a Chomskyan pedigree have often discussed methodological issues of comparability (e.g. Levinson et al. 2003; Slobin 2008; Croft 2009; Rijkhoff 2009; Stassen 2011; Dryer 2016; Haspelmath 2018; Corbett & Round 2021). It is widely recognized that each language is structurally unique (has its own emic categories), so that language comparison must be based on concepts derived from conceptual or phonetic substance (etic concepts). As Levinson & Evans (2010: 2737) put it: “comparison of languages has to be undertaken in an auxiliary language designed to generalize over language-specific categories” (Evans’s views are discussed further here). Such comparative concepts are not literally “a language”, but they can be of diverse kinds: nonverbal stimuli in experiments, Bible verses in parallel-text studies, elicitation questionnaires, and category-like comparative concepts (Haspelmath 2018). These concepts can be applied uniformly in all languages, and allow rigorous and objective testing of universal claims.
Generative grammarians, by contrast, usually presuppose that language comparison must be based on the same categories that are used in language description (i.e. they make no distinction between emic and etic units). These categories must be part of a rich innate grammar blueprint – in other words, this approach is incompatible with Chomsky’s 21st century view that there is no such rich grammar blueprint (as discussed earlier in this blogpost, and in Haspelmath 2020). The idea is that there is a set of innate building blocks of grammar of which all languages are composed, just as all stuff is made of the chemical elements. I have also called this the “Mendeleyevian vision” in my Moscow talk, because the idea is that by analyzing different languages, we will slowly converge on a set of innate building blocks, analogous to the Periodic Table of Elements, which allow both elegant description and comparison, with the comparison resulting in constraints on possible languages (see Baker 2001 for the analogy with chemistry).
But why should this innatist approach require “in-depth analysis”, and why am I saying that it is less rigorous and objective?
The short answers to these questions are: (i) in-depth analyses are thought to be necessary because generative grammarians think that comparisons must be based on “true analyses”, which require a complete and maximally general picture of each language, and (ii) this method is not rigorous because it involves many subjective decisions by indvidual researchers.
What is a “true analysis”? For generative grammarians, this means an analysis that reflects the mental grammars of speakers, and these are assumed to be maximally general. These assumptions are so widespread that many people are not even aware that they are making them. But it is not clear that there is such a thing as a “uniform mental grammar”, because different speakers may have different mental grammars, and we have very limited access to these mental grammars. By contrast, the social grammars that speakers use are very uniform, and we can readily describe these (in fact, this is what we do in practice, because acceptability judgments are about social acceptability). But there is no such thing as “a single true social grammar”. Generality of description is a practical issue, not a matter of truth. Many pedagogical grammars are not maximally general, because they need to be readily comprehensible. For the description of social grammars, this approach works very well too – descriptive grammars are meant to be comprehensible, not “true” in a sense that goes beyond the social rules.
Now it is true that there are many beautiful generative analyses that manage to derive a surprising set of disparate phenomena from a single general concept. I take it that this is the key experience of generative grammarians, and that they often miss in non-generative comparative work. For example, David Pesetsky says:
“You first need an “in-depth” analysis. That’s the whole point of our work, and why what passes for “typology”, while sometimes useful in generating guesses about promising generalizations or correlations, often does not look like maximally useful research to people like me – since uncovering the real generalizations does require in-depth prior analysis.”
It is clear that by looking closely at a wide range of facts, linguists are often able to discover generalizations that would not have been apparent at first glance. So indeed, “in-depth” analyses often have a certain beauty. The emphasis on such non-obvious language-internal generalizations is a hallmark of the structuralist approach since the 1920s, and few linguists find such generalizations irrelevant. In generative grammar, they were extended from phonology and morphology to syntax, which has been the most important contribution of this approach.
Coopmans (1983: 466) made very similar comments about Comrie’s (1981) book about syntactic universals:
“Recent theories of generative grammar show that detailed analysis of a number of well-studied languages may shed light on a range of problems, giving rise to more explanatory theories with more abstract principles and covering a wider range of data.”
Such optimism expressed almost forty years ago can perhaps be understood, but what is the status of these “explanatory theories” at present? Are there strong converging ideas about how we can infer “universal grammar” from the study of particular languages?
Despite the large generative literature, there do not seem to be any specific findings about “universal grammar” that are robust and generally recognized. Adger’s (2019) book focuses on the importance of recursion, which was never in doubt, and the ambitious proposals of Baker (2001) have mostly been abandoned (just as all the specific proposals cited by Coopmans 1983).
I think that this is perhaps inevitable because the abstract concepts that such in-depth analyses result in (movement, zero, VPs, underlying forms, blocking mechanisms, etc.) make it very difficult to compare languages, because these concepts are not directly observable. They must be inferred by complex processes, and as all linguists know, there are no unique results of these inferences (though the specific proposals are often beautiful, as I noted). Different linguists arrive at different solutions, and it is often poorly understood what makes one linguist to choose one solution and another linguist to prefer another one. There are too many “moving parts”. (Moreover, linguists often associate with particular research traditions or “frameworks”, and these seem to determine the outcome as much as empirical considerations.)
Thus, there is not only a lot of subjectiveness in decisions about abstract categories, but also a large amount of social baggage. So in practice, in-depth analyses are not a good basis for rigorous cross-linguistic comparison, despite all their (language-particular) beauty. In my 2019 paper on “Ergativity and depth of analysis”, I elaborate on this a bit more, giving examples from the study of case-marking patterns. (The most fundamental problem is the use of different criteria for different languages, or “diagnostic-fishing”, discussed in §7 of my 2018 paper on comparative concepts. This process is quite unconstrained and thus often subjective.)
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the idea of a rich set of innate building blocks (if we leave aside Darwin’s Problem, which acording to Berwick & Chomsky (2016) makes this a priori unlikely). And many linguists seem to think that we are sufficiently close to knowing what these innate building blocks are (Baker (2001) suggested that the “Mendeleyev of linguistics” may be just around the corner; though Baker (2008) offers a more sober assessment). But to turn this into a serious testable hypothesis, what we need is a specific proposal – a list of innate features and categories for morphosyntax that are proposed to be innate, analogous to Wierzbicka’s list of semantic primes, or to Chomsky & Halle’s list of phonological features. Once we have such a list, this proposal could be taken very seriously, and one could attempt to test it. But as long as all we have from generative grammar is “mid-level generalizations” (D’Alessandro 2019), it seems more advisable to adopt a less speculative approach in terms of comparative concepts that are defined uniformly at the level of observation, not at a level of abstract analyses in terms of innate building blocks.
Adger, David. 2019. Language unlimited: The science behind our most creative power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baker, Mark C. 2001. The atoms of language. New York: Basic Books.
Baker, Mark C. 2008. The macroparameter in a microparametric world. In Biberauer, Theresa (ed.), The limits of syntactic variation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Berwick, Robert C. & Chomsky, Noam. 2016. Why only us: Language and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Comrie, Bernard. 1981. Language universals and linguistic typology: Syntax and morphology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Coopmans, Peter. 1983. Review of Comrie, Bernard (1981) “Language universals and linguistic typology.” Journal of Linguistics. Cambridge University Press 19(2). 455–473.
Croft, William. 2009. Methods for finding universals in syntax. In Scalise, Sergio & Magni, Elisabetta & Bisetto, Antonietta (eds.), Universals of language today, 145–164. Dordrecht: Springer.
D’Alessandro, Roberta. 2019. The achievements of Generative Syntax: a time chart and some reflections. Catalan Journal of Linguistics 0(0). 7–26. (doi:10.5565/rev/catjl.232)
Dryer, Matthew S. 2016. Crosslinguistic categories, comparative concepts, and the Walman diminutive. Linguistic Typology 20(2). 305–331. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2016-0009)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2018. How comparative concepts and descriptive linguistic categories are different. In Van Olmen, Daniël & Mortelmans, Tanja & Brisard, Frank (eds.), Aspects of linguistic variation: Studies in honor of Johan van der Auwera, 83–113. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. (https://zenodo.org/record/3519206)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2019. Ergativity and depth of analysis. Rhema 2019(4). 108–130. (doi:10.31862/2500-2953-2019-4-108-130)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2020. Human linguisticality and the building blocks of languages. Frontiers in Psychology 10(3056). 1–10. (doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03056)
Holmberg, Anders. 2016. Linguistic typology. In Roberts, Ian (ed.), The Oxford handbook of Universal Grammar, 355–376. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199573776.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199573776-e-14)
Levinson, Stephen C. & Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on ‘The myth of language universals.’ Lingua 120(12). 2733–2758.
Levinson, Stephen & Meira, Sérgio & The Language and Cognition Group. 2003. “Natural concepts” in the spatial topological domain-adpositional meanings in crosslinguistic perspective: An exercise in semantic typology. Language 79(3). 485–516.
Rijkhoff, Jan. 2009. On the (un)suitability of semantic categories. Linguistic Typology 13(1). 95–104. (doi:10.1515/LITY.2009.005)
Rizzi, Luigi. 2014. On the elements of syntactic variation. In Picallo, Carme (ed.), Linguistic variation in the minimalist framework, 13–35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Round, Erich & Corbett, Greville G. 2021. Comparability and measurement in typological science: The bright future for linguistics. to appear.
Slobin, Dan I. 2008. Breaking the molds: Signed languages and the nature of human language. Sign Language Studies. Gallaudet University Press 8(2). 114–130.
Stassen, Leon. 2011. The problem of cross-linguistic identification. In Song, Jae Jung (ed.), The Oxford handbook of language typology, 90–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press.