Linguistic Diversity Of Human Languages Essay

Linguistic Diversity Of Human Languages Essay

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Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constrains on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are(is) strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalisations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that -- at least with respect to word order -- cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.
Human language is unique amongst animal communications systems not only for its structural complexity but also for its diversity of every level of structure and meaning. There are about 7,000 extant languages, some with complex patterns of word formation, others with simple words only, some with the verb at the beginning of the sentence, some in the middle, and some at the end. Understanding this diversity and the systemic constraints on it is the central goal of linguistics...


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... of the world 's approximately 7,000 languages. We focused our analyses on the 'word-order universals ' because these are the most frequently cited exemplary candidates for strongly correlated linguistic features, with plausible motivations for interdependencies rooted in prominent formal and functional theories of grammar.
To test the extent of functional dependencies between word-order variables, we used a Bayesian phylogenetic method implemented in the software BayesTraits. For eight word-order features we compared correlated and uncorrelated evolutionary models. Thus, for each pair of features, we calculated the likelihood that the observed states of the characters were the result of the two features evolving independently, and compared this to the likelihood that the observed states were the result of coupled evolutionary change. This likelihood calculation was

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