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General linguistics must be based on universals (or nonconventional aspects of language)

Haspelmath, Martin

This paper highlights the importance of the distinction between general linguistics (the study of Human Language) and particular linguistics (the study of individual languages), which is often neglected. The term “theoretical linguistics” is often used as if it entailed general claims. But I note that (unless one studies nonconventional aspects of language, e.g. reaction times as in psycholinguistics), one must study universals if one wants to make general claims. These universals can be of the Greenbergian type, based on grammatical descriptions of the speaker’s social conventions, or they can be based on the natural-kinds programme, where linguists try to describe mental grammars as made up of universal building blocks of an innate grammar blueprint. The natural-kinds programme is incompatible with Chomsky’s claims about Darwin’s Problem, but it is indispensable for a general linguistics in the generative tradition. The Greenbergian programme, by contrast, can make use of framework-free descriptions because its comparisons are based on independently defined universal yardsticks.

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