LINGUIST List 15.1782

Thu Jun 10 2004

Disc: New: Comments on things no language does

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Everett Daniel, Comments on things no language does

Message 1: Comments on things no language does

Date: Wed, 2 Jun 2004 23:32:54 -0400 (EDT)
From: Everett Daniel <>
Subject: Comments on things no language does

Fritz Newmeyer's recent summary of things that no language does is
interesting, though a few comments spring to mind.

First, I am glad that he doesn't state these as implicational
universals. And one should be very careful not to. For example, if all
languages have oral vowels, but not all languages have (contrastive)
nasal vowels, then this still doesn't give any content to an
implicational universal along the lines of (i):

(i) If a language has Nasal Vowels ---> then it has Oral Vowels

This type of statement as an implication is useless because if the
apodosis is always true (if all languages have contrastive oral
vowels), then the protasis can be anything. So (ii) is equally valid:

(ii) If this is Tuesday ---> then all languages have/this language has
Oral Vowels

We have to be very careful when stating 'universals' that they have
some meaning. The Nasal Vowel/Oral Vowel fact is a useful observation,
but shouldn't be put in implicational form.

I have recently finished an article, on my website, about some
properties of Piraha culture and grammar that seem unique: no
grammatical number, no numerals, no counting, no morphologically
simple color terms, simplest kinship system documented, no fiction, no
creation stories, monolingual after more than 200 years of regular
contact with other languages (especially Portuguese), no relative
tenses (e.g. pluperfect, future perfect, etc.), apparent borrowing of
its entire pronoun inventory, no embedding, no quantification words
(e.g. 'all', 'each', 'every'), simplest material culture yet
documented (only the apparently fictional Tasaday give them any
competition), absence of collective memory of the distant past, and

My bet is that other languages/cultures will have many unique features
as well, features that can seriously impact theories of grammar and
culture and their interaction, even if only found together in a single
language. But such examples will not come from better-known cultures.

It would be useful, I believe, to have a discussion on this list from
field linguists about 'unique' discoveries in their field work, things
that 'no other language does' perhaps. In particular, I would like to
know if there are other languages in which 'embedding' is - at least -
not clear, i.e. where it could be overanalysis and where juxtaposition
could describe the facts just as well (movement, basic constituent
order, binding, etc.).

Finally, Newmeyer's list included some very theory-internal
'things'. It would be more useful to say what it means that
'structural case can't be moved into Tense/IP Spec' - i.e. what is the
prediction in less theory-laden terms. Otherwise, many linguists won't
bother to test it and it will be another one of the 'So-and-so's
Generalization' statements that often, on closer inspection, turn out
to be 'So-and so's spurious observation'


Dan Everett
University of Manchester

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