Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science

Nicholas Evansa1 and Stephen C. Levinsona2

a1 Department of Linguistics, Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies, Australian National University, ACT 0200, Australia.

a2 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, NL-6525 XD Nijmegen, The Netherlands; and Radboud University, Department of Linguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective. This target article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world's 6,000 to 8,000 languages. After surveying the various uses of “universal,” we illustrate the ways languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organization, and then we examine in more detail the core grammatical machinery of recursion, constituency, and grammatical relations. Although there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition.

Linguistic diversity then becomes the crucial datum for cognitive science: we are the only species with a communication system that is fundamentally variable at all levels. Recognizing the true extent of structural diversity in human language opens up exciting new research directions for cognitive scientists, offering thousands of different natural experiments given by different languages, with new opportunities for dialogue with biological paradigms concerned with change and diversity, and confronting us with the extraordinary plasticity of the highest human skills.

Nicholas Evans is Professor of Linguistics at the Australian National University. His more than 120 linguistic publications include grammars of Kayardild and Bininj Gun-wok; dictionaries of Kayardild and Dalabon; edited books on polysynthesis, linguistic prehistory, and grammar-writing; and the recent Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us (Wiley Blackwell, 2009). He has carried out intensive fieldwork on a number of languages of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Current research projects focus on the encoding of psychosocial cognition in grammar, song language traditions of Arnhem Land, and languages of South Coast New Guinea. Evans is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Stephen C. Levinson is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and Professor of Comparative Linguistics at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He is the author of more than 150 publications on language and cognition, including the books Pragmatics (Cambridge University Press [CUP], 1983), Politeness (CUP, 1987), Presumptive Meanings (MIT, 2000), Space in Language and Cognition (CUP, 2003). In addition, he has co-edited the following collections: Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development (CUP, 2001) with M. Bowerman; Grammars of Space (CUP, 2006) with D. Wilkins; Evolution and Culture (MIT, 2006) with P. Jaisson; and Roots of Sociality (Berg, 2006) with N. Enfield. Levinson has done extensive fieldwork on languages in India, Australia, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea, and coordinated research on the typology of languages in New Guinea and Australia. He is a fellow of the British Academy and the Academia Europaea.