Let's Revise

Let's Revise - Languages in Danger

Exploring Linguistic Diversity


1. What do linguists understand by the term Universal Grammar?

Universal Grammar is understood as a system of abstract categories and rules that underlie all human languages. Many linguists believe that children are born with this Universal Grammar and that this innate system enables them to acquire the language in which they grow up (their mother tongue).

2. Give an example of an implicational universal.

If a language has a grammatical marker for dual, it also has a grammatical marker for plural.

3. What has been the model (and the model language) for traditional grammars? Why is it problematic to use this model for other languages?

Latin and Latin grammars of antiquity and the middle ages. The problems are that
(i) the model provides a description only for categories present in Latin. For example, Latin has no articles, so traditional grammar could not describe the use of articles in English.
(ii) the model was often used in a rigorous way, demanding that all categories of Latin have to be described in other languages as well. That led to absurd descriptions, for example, of the “cases” of English nouns.

4. What is the Swadesh list? Which kind of words are included in this list (give examples)? What are these lists used for?

A Swadesh list, named after the linguist Morris Swadesh, is a list of basic vocabulary. These are words for things and activities that belong to the everyday life of human beings across cultures, for example words meaning ‘sun’, ‘eyes’, ‘eat’. These lists are used, (i) for language comparison and to find out to which degree two languages are related; (ii) in language documentation to make an inventory of the vocabulary of a language.

5. Do all languages have words for ‘brother’ and ‘sister’? Explain possible differences.

No, not all languages have words that mean exactly the same as English brother and sister. Sometimes the meaning of words is more narrow, for example, there can be different words for ‘younger brother’ and ‘elder brother’. Sometimes the meaning is broader, for example one word can designate both brothers and cousins. In some languages the age is more important than the sex, so there could be a word for ‘younger sibling’, which may refer to both a brother and a sister.