Language Universals and Language Diversity
in an Evolutionary Perspective



Sonia Cristofaro  (University of Pavia); Nicholas R. Evans (Australian National University, Canberra / ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language);  Martin Haspelmath  (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena / University of Leipzig)


Local organizing committee

Sonia Cristofaro (University of Pavia), Andrea Sanso’ (University of Insubria)


In the 1960s, the pioneering work of Joseph Greenberg led to the discovery that grammatical variation in the world’s languages  is not random. Some grammatical properties are significanly more frequent than others cross-linguistically. Also, there are recurrent implicational correlations between logically independent grammatical properties, such
that, if a language has some property X, it also usually has property Y (whereas Y can occur independently).  While these  are statistical, rather than exceptionless patterns, they are commonly referred to as language universals.

Ever since Greenberg’s work, language universals have been extensively investigated both in linguistics and in a variety of other disciplines, including for example psychology, biology, and computer science. In linguistic typology, the research tradition that originated directly from Greenberg’s work, universals are often explained in an evolutionary perspective, based on a general view of languages as complex adaptive systems. Universals result from multiple small-scale actions of different speakers over time. A variety of neurocognitive mechanisms, manifested at the level of speech production and processing, lead individual speakers to create novel grammatical structures from pre-existing ones. These structures are then selected, propagated and maintained in the language as a result of the dynamics of social interaction between adult speakers, as well as the dynamics of language acquisition (the vertical process of language transmission from one generation of speakers to another). To the extent that the same structures are recurrently created, propagated and maintained in different languages, an overall pattern will emerge. This is in contrast with the theoretical framework that goes back to Noam Chomsky, where language universals follow from static inbuilt constraints in a speaker’s mind.

While this evolutionary view is widely shared at the theoretical level, its consequences for empirical research on language universals and explanations thereof are still relatively under-explored.  What is the exact nature of the neurocognitive mechanisms that lead speakers to recurrently create the same structures in different languages? How do mechanisms of social interaction lead to the propagation of individual structures? What is the role of language acquisition in shaping particular universal patterns? How can we disentangle and accurately model the effects of different mechanisms of creation, propagation and maintainance of particular structures? How can we extract evidence about these effects from the ever growing body of available data on the grammatical structure of different, unrelated languages all over the world?

The school brings together leading experts on these topics, who will provide state-of-the-art reviews of the relevant issues and related research prospects. Courses on offer include

Balthasar Bickel (University of Zurich)
Linguistic biases in biological perspective

Holger Diessel (University of Jena)
The Grammar Network: How linguistic structure is shaped by language use

Nicholas R. Evans (Australian National University, Canberra/ ARC Centre of  Excellence for the Dynamics of Language)
The grammar of others: social cognition and linguistic diversity

Martin Haspelmath (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena/ Leipzig University)
Some universals of grammar with particular reference to coding asymmetries

Sabine Stoll, University of Zurich
Language development: uniformity in diversity?

The school is adjacent to the 13th international conference of the Association for Linguistic Typology, to be hosted at the University of Pavia on September 4-6th, 2019.