Does grammar matter? - Andreea S. Calude
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We all know that languages differ with respect to their grammar – we have all tried to learn another language only to be baffled not just by new vocabulary but also by the order and other quirks of how that language organizes its vocabulary – but what can and what does actually vary? Here is a survey of 200 languages and their varying features. For example, you can see the kinds of basic word orders which the languages in this sample have, displayed as a colour-coded map. It is fascinating to see this variety of features and their geographical spread. You might notice that languages which are spoken by people who live next door to each other share certain features. For example, many SVO (subject-verb-object) languages seem to cluster in Africa. This is termed ‘areal effect’ and one important unanswered question in linguistics seeks to find out to what extent areal effects occur across languages.
The person who pioneered the idea of a ‘language universal’ is Joseph Greenberg. He proposed a number of language universals, not just relating to grammatical features but also linking sound systems, word formation principles and semantic notions. Greenberg came up with these universals on the basis of statistical correlations which he identified between many of the world’s languages. He remains one of the most talented, creative and respected linguists of all time – you can read an article about his achievements published in the New York Times (Feb 2000) by Nicholas Wade. You can also browse an overview of language universals on the project site hosted by the University of Konstanz called ‘The Universals Archive’.
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