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G Longobardi & I Roberts 1. Introduction Dunn et al (2011) apply computational phylogenetic techniques to cross-linguistic data taken from the World Atlas of Language Structures (Haspelmath et al 2008; WALS) and claim that the results of their analysis show that (i) “contrary to the generative account of parameter setting ... the evolution of only a few word order features of languages are strongly correlated” (1) and (ii) “contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, ... most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies” (1). They conclude that their “findings support the view that ... cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure”. Dunn et al’s work has two merits. First, it illustrates the potential importance of increasingly adopting quantitative techniques in comparative and historical linguistics, as advocated e.g. by MacMahon and MacMahon (2005). Second, it brings to prominence a version of what Gianollo, Guardiano and Longobardi (2008) referred to (and began to address) as “Humboldt’s problem”: the question of the extent to which cross-grammatical generalisations can genuinely be made independently of historical factors, notably genetic affiliation, and vice versa. We unreservedly share what might be taken as one of their ultimate goals: making cultural history into a science, and a quantitative one, at least no less than natural history is. However, we believe that the work is seriously flawed in a number of respects and fails to approximate such a goal. First, the database is too small and too superficial to permit any reliable conclusions to be drawn. Second, the conclusion that grammatical structure reflects cultural history to a large extent (perhaps no less than vocabulary, which rather obviously does) may very well be correct; but, mainly as a consequence of the previous point, it is poorly supported by their data and can be much more strongly and unexpectedly corroborated by a phylogenetic analysis based on quantitatively wider and qualitatively deeper evidence: indeed Longobardi and Guardiano (2009) have argued for precisely this conclusion in much more detail on the grounds of parameters of generative syntax. Third, and most importantly, their conclusions in (i-ii) simply do not logically follow from their data or arguments: neither the Chomskyan nor the Greenbergian programme for the study of universals need necessarily be affected by the results reported in the article. Moreover, the role of a completely undefined notion of “cultural evolution” in explaining any aspect of universals or language change remains entirely occult, beyond the truism of “the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states” (1), which is true of all known physical, biological and cultural systems at all times (except perhaps at the level of subatomic particles). Together, these weaknesses combine to render the claims made either invalid or largely without substance. We now discuss these weaknesses in more detail.
2.The database As mentioned above, the database used by Dunn et al is too small and too shallow to grant reliable conclusions. First, the database is too small in that a mere eight characters were chosen (all surface word-order features: subject-verb, numeral-noun, adjective-noun, demonstrative-noun, genitive-noun, relative clause-noun, object-verb and adposition-noun). Second, although the choice of characters based on attested word-order variation is discussed and justified, the specific choice of these eight is not. The choice is in fact rather questionable: Dryer (1992) showed that adjectivenoun probably does not correlate with other orders, contrary to what was earlier assumed by Greenberg (1966) and Hawkins (1983); relative-clause positioning in relation to nouns is known to show a much stronger "head-initial" (noun before relative clause) tendency than other orders (Hawkins (1994)); it is not generally thought that subject-verb order correlates with other properties (although Dryer (1992) argues that it does). From the point of view of structural parameters, these pairs form a rather non-homogenous set: only verb-object and adposition-noun are uncontroversially agreed to enter into the kind of relation (head-complement) that may be subject to “hard-wired parametrisation” in the sense of generative grammar: although some recent theories might (controversially) assimilate numeral-noun, demonstrative-noun and some cases of genitive-noun to this relation, no theory would assimilate subject-verb and adjective-noun to this relation. Furthermore, at the very least two classes of cardinal numerals (nominal and adjectival: Zweig 2005) must be distinguished, as well as two types of postnominal demonstrative positions (Guardiano 2010, Roberts 2011), and three distributionally very different genitives (Longobardi 2001). Hence, from the perspective of almost all updated theories of word-order variation, no trivial correlations are expected among many of these pairs. Finally and more generally, the testing ground is too superficial in that actual assignment of languages to given orders is dubious (to some degree, this is due to the uneven quality of the data in WALS, which can only be as good as its extremely heterogeneous sources and the necessarily oversimplifying analytical categories used). For example, merely looking at the more familiar Indo-European languages in their Figure 1, one sees "polymorphic states" assigned to verb-object order in Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish and Frisian. For the Modern Germanic languages, this reflects the fact that the tensed verb form appears in second position (frequently, but by no means necessarily, before the object) in assertive main clauses and in final position in subordinate clauses introduced by a complementiser: however, in all generative work since Koster (1975), the view has been that the verb's position in main clauses is a "derived" one, not reflecting the true underlying order, which is always verb-final. Perhaps someone could dismiss this analysis as too abstract an artifice of generative theory, but note in this connection that even the application of Bayesian statistics, as seems accepted by the authors, is a form of equally abstract analysis; therefore, it is entirely unclear why this should be accepted while the consensus of almost 40 years' work in the syntax of the Germanic languages by native speakers expert in syntactic theory should be disregarded. Anyway, if this were the case, we would meet the same kind of methodologically narrow attitude as that which underlies many of the claims recently made by Evans & Levinson (2009): if you refuse to look beyond surface phenomena you may miss
hidden generalisations of some significance. For example, even a superficial description should admit that the purely lexical forms of the verb (i.e. those not synthetically combined with Tense) consistently occur after the object in, say, German: now, as pointed out by Haider (2010), it is precisely this property that should be considered as ‘basic’ in that it correlates with the same further word order properties as one finds in less controversial (i.e. without verb fronting) OV languages like Japanese. For Old English, the same point regarding verb-position holds, although there are further complications partly due to the impoverished database; however, here too the (less uniform) consensus is that the language, at least in the earlier Alfredian period, was verb-final. The same has been argued in a series of recent, theoretically informed, empirically detailed studies of Latin word order (see Salvi 2004, Devine & Stephens 2006, and, in particular, Ledgeway forthcoming). Ancient Greek is a less clear case, although the important work by Taylor (1990) shows that Homeric Greek was verb-final while Classical and New Testament Greek were VO. If such doubt can be cast on the reliability of the basic data in the case of the languages that are well-known and well-studied, how much faith can we have in the claims about the other orders in the other languages? In short, the well-known principle of “garbage in-garbage out” may apply here. The choice of characters is small, arbitrary and non-uniform and the data reported regarding the states of those characters is of dubious quality. Hence, no firm conclusions can be drawn from any computational treatment of this data, sophisticated though it may be. 3. Humboldt’s problem The question of the nature or even the existence of structural traits (a kind of innere Sprachform) which are similar across languages, though not attributable to a common historical source, but rather to some universal ‘type’, is a venerable one (first explicitly raised, as far as we know, by Humboldt (cf. Morpurgo-Davies 1998, ch. 5, especially fn. 5)). Dunn et al are to be credited for making one more attempt to readdress this issue and answer it. However, for the reasons just given, we believe that their results must be considered with scepticism. Drawing an analogy with genetics here, one could claim that the surface data Dunn et al. use are really akin to the kind of surface observations of phenotypical features of peas that Mendel used, or to shades of skin colour as were once employed in rough and evolutionarily doubtful classifications of humans. We now have available much deeper and fine-grained insights on diversity provided by formal grammar and the best parametric approaches. In a series of recent papers by Longobardi and various collaborators (from Longobardi 2003 through Longobardi and Guardiano 2009, Bortolussi et al 2011), guided precisely by the model of taxonomic genetics, a version of this problem has been re-addressed ‘from the other end’ (not unlike Dunn et al. in this respect, see below), i.e. trying to measure formally how much grammatical structure encodes an historical signal. This work demonstrates how a close analysis of a limited, but coherent, module of cross-linguistic syntax (roughly, the “nominal group”) can yield much more detailed data and, when coupled with computational phylogenetic techniques and statistical evaluations, real (i.e. independently known to be correct) insights into language history. The phylogenies based on parameter values for the
selection of 23 languages shown in Fig. 1 below illustrate the potential results of such a modularised Parametric Comparison Method (PCM). It is tempting to make the analogy between parametric syntax and molecular genetics: one is likely to gain greater insight if one looks at the more abstract, less superficial, patterns than if one limits oneself to surface observations. Let us notice that Mendel was compelled to do so in the case of genetics, while Dunn et al merely choose to do so in the case of linguistics. In evolutionary biology and population genetics, ‘genotypical’ taxonomies turned out to be regarded as more precise, informative and reliable than external, ‘phenotypical’ ones (Cavalli Sforza, Menozzi and Piazza 1994, 18, among others). There is hardly any reason not to expect progress in detail and deductive structure of grammatical theory to provide the same advances for language taxonomies. In this search for ever more detailed evidence, it may be necessary, but also more useful, to address Humboldt’s problem in a less “global” manner, focussing instead on cases where genetic affiliation is unlikely or unproven, but structural similarities are striking. One well-known case of this type concerns the relation between the Celtic and the Semitic languages. Some of the Celtic and Semitic languages display a degree of prima facie structural similarity which certainly cannot be explained in terms of inheritance from any common proto-source, since it is not shared by other Indo-European languages: e.g. VSO clausal order, construct-state-like adnominal genitives, among others. The extent of such similarities is not matched by equally suspicious lexical or morphophonological resemblance. Given that a vertical genetic explanation for the structural similarity can be confidently ruled out for the reason above, we are left with three possible explanations: a) actual prehistorical contact (horizontal exchange, as advocated for example by Vennemann 2002) b) sheer chance c) the effect of the heavily implicational structure of UG (macro-)parameters (Longobardi to appear) A preliminary attempt by Roberts (2004) yielded a tentative result that the relation was due to chance similarity in the settings of several parameters. However, the choice and number of parameters and the depth of implication among them, along with our theoretical awareness of their explanatory potential, have been significantly improved since. In the light of this, Roberts’ (2004) conclusions should be revisited. Longobardi & Roberts (in progress) apply the most updated version of PCM database and tools minimally to Welsh, Irish, Standard Arabic and Modern Hebrew, and to integrate them into phylogenetic trees and networks against the background provided by other Eurasian languages in the Longobardi and Guardiano (2009) sample. This enables us to more precisely calculate the degree of plausibility of the various hypotheses above (e.g. bootstrapping analysis may help us assess the solidity of the possible grouping of Celtic within the other IE languages, rather than forming an outlier branching with Semitic, under various experimental conditions) and to more accurately approximate the possible explanatory role of any macroparameters or crossparametric interactions. The results of this work are not yet complete, but already suggest the right (and very instructive) solution: Celtic and Semitic are not mistaken for relatives at the appropriate parametric level, despite the salient but misleading similarities in visible patterns. This seems to us a more modest, but much 4
sounder and more data-grounded, way of approaching Humboldt’s question, trying to avoid the risks of generalising from scanty and poorly analysed surface observations. In sum, in lexical historical linguistics, everyone would agree (apparently even Greenberg himself did) that, whenever applicable, a comparative method based on several deeply analysed words and phonological structures in fewer languages (essentially the classical method) is more reliable than one simply looking at few superficially resembling words in many languages (mass comparison): we see no reason why this should not be the case in syntax, now that detailed analyses of this sort are available. 4. Implications for Chomskyan typology Even if Dunn et al’s ultimate conclusions about the effect of history on crosslinguistic generalisations prove empirically correct, as we presume, and rejoin Longobardi and Guardiano’s (2009) results, there is no argument here in favour of cultural evolution and against a Chomskyan approach to universals. Arguing for a positive answer to one side of Humbodlt’s problem (i.e. whether grammars significantly encode language history) by no means implies a negative answer to its complement (whether language similarities may significantly reflect non-historical, biologically universal principles). For example, Longobardi and Guardiano’s (2009) argument for parametric encoding of phylogenetic history is indeed based on a rich system of universals, complementing the hypothesised parameters and especially expressing the absolutely pervasive implicational relations among the latter. Thus, by itself, asserting strong inheritance of grammatical traits is no counterevidence at all to Universal Grammar: quite the opposite, in fact, since historical success brings support to the theory allowing such results. Second, as mentioned above, hardly any of the characters chosen by Dunn et al would be seen as tied to a unique parameter (or cluster of parameters). Third, as Baker (2010:11) has recently pointed out, the kind of superficial variation catalogued in WALS and used as the source of data for Dunn et al's study is, precisely because of its superficiality, readily acquirable by children on exposure to simple data, and therefore subject to externally induced variation (and change, through processes of abductive reanalysis in language acquisition -- see Lightfoot (1979, 1991, 1999), Roberts (2007)). Finally, although we strongly believe in the innovative role of historical adequacy as a criterion to corroborate grammatical models, considerations of classical explanatory adequacy (Chomsky 1964), i.e. of the logical problem of language acquisition, remain a crucial standard for any theory of diversity. Now a full rejection of language universals, denying that there is a finite set of possible grammars, would apparently fail this criterion. As put by Chomsky (in a written p.c. to one of us): “I still don't really understand what alternative there is to (1) P(rinciples)&P(arameters) or (2) the ‘abductive’ approach it replaced, with UG determining the format for grammar and some kind of (unfeasible) evaluation measure to select among the infinite range of instantiations. What constraints are there (in surface descriptive theories GL/IR) on the ‘sets of syntactic patterns’? If they permit only a finite set of such sets, we’re back to P&P, but keeping to surface properties. If it's not finite, we're back to the unfeasible abductive approach -- also keeping just to surface properties.
Furthermore, though a P&P approach suggests a way to determine a language (fixing the values), how does a set of surface patterns (of course finite) determine a language even in principle?” Thus, the central Chomskyan argument for positing some form of innate (and therefore universal) aspect of the human language faculty is the argument from the poverty of the stimulus: the primary linguistic data available to the child underdetermine the form of the underlying grammar (in that they are compatible with innumerable possible grammars, but children almost unerringly converge on the “correct” one) to such an extent that there must be some inbuilt bias in the learner towards some kinds of grammar rather than others. That inbuilt bias is universal grammar (note that on this construal universal grammar may not be domain-specific – unique to language – or even specific to humans). Niyogi (2006) proves that, given unlimited time and computational resources, a natural-language grammar is learnable starting from a tabula rasa, but human children manifestly do not have unlimited time and computational power. Poverty-of-the-stimulus arguments abound in cognitive science: Boden (2007: 587-8), in her history of the first 50 years of cognitive science, points out that this kind of conclusion is very widespread: “inductive learning requires some initial guidance and/or restriction … That’s been shown independently by work in GOFAI [Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence, GL/IR], in connectionism, in linguistics, in development psychology, in adult cognitive psychology, in the philosophy of science, and in neuroscience”. She also endorses a poverty-of-the-stimulus argument given by the cognitive anthropologist Boyer (1994:25) regarding the “learning” of cultural norms and beliefs. In the light of the argument from the poverty of the stimulus, superficial and easily-learned properties such as the order of adjective and noun may simply have no bearing on the question of the true, deeper universals of language. Indeed, if these traits are strongly historically conserved this merely attests to their ready learnability across many generations. The deeper universals may include such things as island constraints (e.g. the impossibility of forming a question based on a constituent inside a relative clause: *Which book did you meet the man who wrote--), constraints on quantifier interpretation such as Barwise & Cooper’s (1981) notion of conservativity of determiners, and subtle constraints on word order like the Final over Final Constraint of Biberauer, Holmberg, Roberts & Sheehan (2011). As Baker (ibid) puts it: “we expect that the most abstract properties of language -- the very hardest properties of that language for the linguist to discover, and thus the issues most rarely discussed in descriptive grammars -- also to be the most universal properties of language”. At the same time, we should not overlook the fact that the entire discussion has been carried using, with no explanation or elucidation, grammatical terminology that must be seen as universal in order for the discussion to be possible at all: terms such as “subject”, “noun”, “verb”, etc. It is very difficult to see how such terms may explained in terms of cultural evolution; Greenbergian typology largely takes them for granted, but formal theories in the meantime have proceeded toward attempts to explain them (in the case of “subject”, by reducing function to structure, in the case of “noun”, "verb” etc. by elaborating a theory of innate, universal grammatical categories).
5. Implications for Greenbergian typology If Dunn et al’s results are correct, which we have seen reason to doubt, then the consequence would be that the goal of establishing and explaining non-historical implicational, statistical and other universal generalisations should simply be abandoned. Some typologists (e.g. Evans and Levinson 2009) seem to have drawn this conclusion. Of course, if Baker's argument as given above is correct this may be reasonable: the real universals of language are only going to be found through something more than superficial catalogues of data. Typological investigation will find suggestive tendencies, but nothing more, true universals being much more hidden and only intricately related to observation. But this pessimistic conclusion depends on the quality of Dunn et al’s data, which, as we have seen, is highly dubious. It is an empirical question whether Baker’s argument is really correct, i.e. whether there is full reason to be sceptical about inductively finding some universals through a more thorough screening of data. Anyway the inference, if anything, goes the other way around: if Greenberg’s generalisations are regarded as weak and epiphenomenal, then strong historical determination of such patterns is nothing but expected, which is what Dunn et al found. 6. Conclusions There are three main lessons to draw from all this, we believe. First, Dunn et al’s claim that grammatical structure reflects cultural history to a large extent (probably no less than vocabulary) may well be correct, but it is much more poorly argued than can be done if the cross-linguistic comparison is based on more abundant (as e.g. already in Dunn et al 2005) and especially more abstract and sophisticated characters, i.e. the possible ‘genotype’ of grammatical variation, like e.g. the parameters of generative linguistics. Dunn et al’s (2011) main point should therefore really be that this generalisation seems so robust that it can be sometimes drawn even from quantitatively limited and non-homogeneously analysed ‘phenotypical’ observations. Second, their conclusion that the Chomskyan approach to universals in terms of parametric variation is falsified is simply wrong, because they use such rough and shallow epiphenomenal characters, which are indeed NOT the entities of formal approaches to universal grammar. Third, there is absolutely no argument for a special, non-trivial, notion of “cultural evolution” (undefined in the paper in any case) playing a role in the typology of languages beyond the simple fact that the present is partly determined by the past. Beside that, this notion seems to us to be entirely devoid of content. There is no compelling evidence here that this is not the case.
Fig.1: Phylogenies from Longobardi and Guardiano’s (2009) parametric experiment
References Baker (2010 Barwise & Cooper (1981) Biberauer, Holmberg, Roberts & Sheehan (2011). Boden (2007 Boyer 1994 Bortolussi et al 2011 Chomsky 1964 Devine & Stephens 2006, Dryer (1992) Dunn et al 2005 Dunn et al (2011) Evans and Levinson 2009 Gianollo, Guardiano and Longobardi (2008) Greenberg (1966) Guardiano 2010, Haider Haspelmath et al 2008 Hawkins (1983) Hawkins (1994) Koster (1975) Ledgeway Lightfoot (1979, Lightfoot 1991, Lightfoot 1999) Longobardi 2001 (Longobardi 2010) 8
Longobardi and Guardiano (2009) Longobardi & Roberts (in progress) MacMahon and MacMahon (2005) Morpurgo-Davies 199 Niyogi (2006) Roberts (2004) Roberts 2007 Roberts 2011 Salvi 2004 Taylor (1990) Vennemann 2002 Zweig
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