Thursday May 4, 2006

A Cross-Linguistic Perspective

Over at Jabal al-Lughat, Lameen Souag has dug up an example of the Cardinal Sin of Linguistics: making universalist claims based on a tiny sample of languages, especially if it's a sample containing just one, your native language.  (Speakers of English seem particularly prone to this sin.)  In this case, a study of perception verb clauses covers the following language sample: English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Sigh.  If you can't bring yourself to look outside Europe, at least expand your search one shelf to the left and skim through the Finnish and Hungarian grammars.  What's the worst that could happen?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
09:10 PM in Linguistics | Submit: | Links:

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Comments

How about:

A great deal of contemporary work in linguistic theory relies primarily on English to illustrate and test ideas and hypotheses. With a few exceptions, I will follow this practice here too, largely for practical reasons (I have a strict page limit). Even with a focus on English though, we can proceed with some confidence, as it is highly unlikely that just one language in the world could have its core properties determined by a processor rather than a grammar. If English (or any other language) works that way, then so must every language—even if it is not initially obvious how the details are to be filled in.

Posted by: AJ at May 5, 2006 8:14:58 AM

Well, those other languages _should_ work like English, darn it. Hahahaha. :-)

Posted by: mike at May 5, 2006 9:31:30 AM

BTW, the quote comes from this book.

Posted by: AJ at May 5, 2006 10:31:49 AM

Well, the worst case scenario is that there is about 15 or 20 of them.

Posted by: Erkki at May 5, 2006 11:20:49 AM

Well, the worst case scenario is that there is about 15 or 20 of them.

I think an even worse scenario is finding that your favorite hypothesis doesn't hold for languages outside your narrow sample, forcing you to junk your dissertation and start over from scratch. (All the more reason to examine a wide enough sample before committing yourself to a theoretical position.)

Posted by: The Tensor at May 6, 2006 5:05:00 PM