4.1 Language Universals and Typology
4.1.1 Generative Universal Grammar
In the framework of generative grammar, spearheaded by Noam Chomsky, the notion of language universals has to do with “universal grammar,” a theory developed to explain how it is that children acquire language so efficiently. Chomsky argues that humans possess innate internal linguistic abilities and constraints that facilitate their rapid and effortless learning of language.3 The central argument used to support this hypothesis is referred to as “the poverty of the stimulus.”4 This argument states that a child’s limited and unstructured exposure to language is insufficient for the complex and limitless expressions that the child generates. Children produce grammatical sentences that they have never heard even after being raised in environments with broken, idiomatic, and incomplete communication. Therefore, the child must bring an innate set of principles, a “universal grammar,” to bear on the limited amount of language input she has received. The child’s universal grammar, together with the linguistic input received from other people, allows the child to extrapolate the correct patterns and rules that make up the adult grammar. The generative approach to the study of language universals is largely deductive—that is, abstract principles of universal grammar are derived through the close study of a particular language, from which parameters are proposed in order to explain the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic diversity of the languages of the world.5
4.1.2 Crosslinguistic Universals
In contrast to the deductive generative approach, many linguists approach the study of language universals inductively—that is, by analyzing and comparing data drawn from many languages and from many diverse language families. Where generative linguists begin with language-internal generalizations (universal grammar) and then use empirical constraints as well as crosslinguistic data to verify or falsify those generalizations, the inductive approach begins with a search for linguistic patterns across languages in pursuit of more precise categorization.
One of the main advantages of this crosslinguistic research is the ability to uncover different types of universals in language. Some universals can be framed in terms of frequency and probability. For example, 95 percent of languages show a preference for the grammatical subject of a clause to appear in front of the grammatical object (regardless of the position of the verb).6 Other universals are called implicational universals. These are properties of languages that “must, or can only be, present if some other property is also present.”7 That is, if X exists in a language, then probably Y exists also. These types of universals are especially common with issues of word order. A quite striking instance of an implicational universal involves verbs and objects in relationship to prepositions/postpositions (adpositions).8 Matthew Dryer provides the following information for the relationship between these elements.9
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The information in this chart essentially says that if a language has the word order verb before object, then in turn it is highly probable that the language will also have a preposition (i.e., adposition before noun). Similarly, if a language has the word order object before verb, then it is quite likely that the language will have postpositions (i.e., noun before adposition). Both of these are implicational universals: if one word order exists, then the implication is that the other word order exists. Since languages that have the verb-object order almost always also have the preposition-noun order, this becomes a significant guide for language research. Implicational universals like these are helpful for demonstrating the finite ways languages can vary and that there is a nonarbitrary organization to an individual language’s structure. The value of this type of study for an analysis of the biblical languages is discussed below.
4.1.3 Linguistic Typology
The study of linguistic typology complements the search for language universals. Where the latter seeks to determine what all languages do and to describe the nature of how languages differ, the former attempts to organize all of that information in a way that is meaningful. No two languages are the same. Despite that, variation between languages is constrained. No two trees are identical, but there are defining features that nevertheless separate an oak tree from a maple tree or a Douglas fir. The variation we find in language is of the same kind. It is regular and predictable and can be classified into types. When languages are compared based on the presence or absence of identical features—finding the “types” of languages that exist for a certain study—linguistic typology is being performed. Bernard Comrie summarizes the complementary relationship between these approaches:
We can thus say that, over all, the study of language universals aims to establish limits on variation within human language. Typology is concerned directly with the study of this variation, and this makes it clearer why the two studies run so close together, since both are concerned with variation across languages, the only difference being that language universals research is concerned primarily with limits on this variation, whereas typological research is concerned more directly with possible variation.10
The discipline of linguistic typology assumes and utilizes language universals. Drawing on the discussion of implicational universals above, the conclusion is that, broadly speaking, there are two major language types, each following one of the two universals. There are VO-preposition languages, and there are OV-postposition languages. Of course, there are still twenty-four languages represented in the chart above that diverge from these two types. These are the platypuses and penguins of the linguistic world; they do not fit into the class of either mammal or bird, not quite. While rare, these sorts of divergences, where languages break from expected norms, are normal and expected in both the biological world and in linguistics (see the discussion of important concepts in cognitive linguistics in chapter 5). They represent important points of research for the field.
4.1.4 Universals, Typology, and Biblical Languages
This type of research is valuable for understanding the biblical languages better. Ancient Greek and Biblical Hebrew manifest certain patterns that are similar to many contemporary languages. Historically few scholars have used the insights of typology and universals to inform their conclusions about Greek and Hebrew. This underutilization is due largely to the different jargon used in biblical studies versus linguistics. The typological studies that have been done by linguists are unintelligible to the average Hebrew or Greek student. Nevertheless, a few scholars have learned the technical language of both disciplines and demonstrated the explanatory power of typological research.
One work that utilizes research in typology and universals is a recent volume on the subject of time and aspect in the Hebrew verb. In Time and the Biblical Hebrew Verb, John Cook draws from a typological study done by linguist Leon Stassen.11 Stassen observes what he calls the “Tensedness Parameter.” One aspect of this parameter reveals that languages can be predominantly tense based or aspect based in their verbal system. One implicational universal he discovered reveals that tense-based languages encode their adjectival predicates (such as John is tall) in a way that resembles their nominal strategy (how noun predicates are encoded). Aspect-prominent languages, however, tend to encode their adjectival predicates according to the verbal strategy (with verbs). In his study, Cook reflects on the stative adjective in Biblical Hebrew and notices a gradual shift happening in the development of Hebrew away from the verb-like stative adjective to a more noun-like encoding of adjectival predicates. This change is ascribed to the drift of Hebrew from a more aspect-based to a more tense-based language in the verbal system. In other words, Biblical Hebrew is a snapshot of a language whose verbal system is in a state of transition from aspect prominence to tense prominence.12 This drift is also reflected in other languages of the world, as recorded by Stassen’s typological research.
As Cook’s work shows, using data from modern spoken languages of the world can reveal patterns that help our knowledge of so-called dead or unspoken languages, such as Biblical Greek and Hebrew. If a language universal is true in a certain type of language, and Biblical Hebrew, for example, falls into that category, it would be unexpected for that language universal not to hold true for Biblical Hebrew.13 Conversely, if a scholar were to make a suggestion at the grammatical, syntactic, or discourse level of Biblical Greek, and that suggestion were unattested in all other languages similar to Biblical Greek, there would be good reason to rethink that suggestion. In short, linguistic typology and language universals give us stronger probability in making claims about how Biblical Hebrew and Greek work, and they prevent idiosyncratic suggestions from receiving undue influence.
Widder, Wendy, Michael Aubrey, et al. Linguistics & Biblical Exegesis. Ed. Douglas Mangum and Josh Westbury. Vol. 2. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016. Print. Lexham Methods Series.
Edited by rwrobinson88, 27 December 2017 - 04:02 PM.