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I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a linguist I really admire.  We were in a group discussion about a theory of syntax, which involved talk not only of grammar but also of neurology, cognition, the evolution of language, and the evolution of humans as a species.  She said to me that one of the things she loves the most about language is that at the very basic level, we’re all doing the exact same thing.  Languages have surface differences but when you get right down to it, the differences are precisely superficial, not fundamental.  She loves that language is what we humans all share.

What was interesting about that conversation is that it was clear that she takes as much delight from language similarity as I do from language difference.  I don’t disagree that much of the difference is on the surface, but to me, those “superficial” differences are what create the rich texture and contour that characterizes the world as we live in it.

I was thinking of that this week because I picked up and started reading R.M.W. Dixon’s Basic Linguistic Theory (Volume 1: Methodology).  I have long admired Dixon’s extensive and trailblazing fieldwork and documentation, especially with underdescribed Australian languages.  And I know that Dixon himself staunchly insists that no society is “primitive” (he fiercely defends the sophistication of Australian Aboriginal society).  So I’m sure he would agree that at some important level, we are all similar.  But as a lifelong describer of languages, he is obviously also fascinated by the differences, and he uses a wealth of them in this book.

I think maybe you all would find the differences pretty fascinating too.  I am always amazed at the things that languages can do.  And since it’s the middle of the week, how about a POP QUIZ!

True or False – Somewhere in the world right now, there are people speaking a language that:

  1. has fifteen grammatical cases, including specific ways of saying “towards the inside of,” and “towards the outside of”
  2. has six different verb tenses
  3. has different 2nd person pronouns for singular, dual (“you two”), paucal (“you few”), and plural (as we would say in Oklahoma, “all y’all”)
  4. has only one 2nd person pronoun
  5. doesn’t have any pronouns at all
  6. has eight different forms of the imperative, including “do at a future time,” “make sure that something which should be done is being done,” and “do what a third person has ordered you to do.”
  7. has 43 different click consonants
  8. does not have any nasal consonants (sounds like ‘n’ and ‘m’)
  9. has different forms of suffixes for nouns that are downriver, upriver, uphill, downhill, across the river, or a long way off
  10. does not have any verbs

N.B. Almost all of these examples are taken directly from Dixon (2010) Chapter 1.

Answers:

  1. True.  Finnish noun cases also distinguish between “with” and “together with,” among other fine distinctions.
  2. True.  Dixon cites a report from Bani and Klokeid (1971) that says that the West Torres language actually utilizes five different past tenses, bringing the total of possible verb tenses up to eight.
  3. True.  Dixon cites Hill (1992) in his description of Longgu pronouns.
  4. True!  Unless, like me, you believe “y’all” and “all y’all” are acceptable second-person forms🙂
  5. False.  One of the few accepted linguistic universals is that all languages have pronouns.  Unless you want to argue that pronouns aren’t really a distinct grammatical category…but that’s a longer discussion.
  6. True.  Dixon cites Barnes (1979, 1984).
  7. True.  Oh, how I love click consonants!
  8. True.  If you want to get really technical, you can say that they do make nasal sounds but they are not phonemically distinct, which is what counts in terms of language sounds.
  9. True.  Dixon himself has done extensive work on the fascinating Dyirbal language for decades.
  10. False.  This is a pretty uncontroversial linguistic universal – all languages have verbs.  It’s hard to conceive of communicating without verbs.  Then again, it can be hard to conceive of fifteen distinct noun cases!

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How did you do on the quiz?  Which is more interesting to you – the way that language is common to all humans, or the almost endless ways that human languages are different?

Copyright Allison Taylor-Adams.  See About for details.