Friday, May 05, 2006

How to find linguistic universals

I couldn't resist posting this quote:

[In this book] I examine the general conditions under which verbal complements are licensed, and provide a possible explanation for their limited distribution. The primary reference language is English, though the proposed licensing conditions for verbal complements are assumed to hold universally.

Fortunately, the author adds:

That the main proposals of this study and the analyses do indeed carry over to other languages is shown in Chapter 5, which takes a cross-linguistic perspective.

The title of Chapter 5? "Direct Perception Complements in Other European Languages". The languages considered are German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, representing a grand total of two neighboring subfamilies of Indo-European.

I don't mean to poke fun at this book specifically - it looks like a very thorough analysis of clausal complements of perception verbs in English - but this so neatly encapsulates what in practice is one of the main problems of the generative program: over-reliance on English in particular and what Sapir used to call "Standard Average European" in general.


Paul Davidson said...

I'd bet Japanese doesn't fit into neatly into whatever verbal complement system he's come up with.

It's amazing how many Indo-European grammatical concepts you have to discard to understand Japanese. Textbooks that pretend even basic constructs like adjectives and pronouns are universal, and attempt to apply these terms to Japanese, usually only serve to confuse the learner more.

bulbul said...

Facing proponents of generative grammar or minimalist program or whatever it's called these days, I always bring up either Georgian or Korean. Universals, he?

language said...

Yeah, Georgian is a wonderful language from that point of view (as from so many others). Man, I hate these know-nothing "linguists." Let them do field work in New Guinea before making grand pronouncements!

David Marjanović said...

I remember once having seen on TV a linguist explaining where various word orders are found on the globe. Then he gave an example of a word order that wasn't found anywhere, he said. It happened to be a word order required by German grammar in some places. Funny thing is, the whole documentary (on Arte, IIRC) had voice-over in German.

Lameen Souag said...

That's pretty funny - can you remember which word order it was?

David Marjanović said...

Unfortunately not, it was several years ago. It was one of the imaginable variations of, IIRC, "today evening I'll eat dinner with [name]".