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Keywords:

  • Linguistic universals;
  • Typology;
  • Statistical methods;
  • Statistical model

Abstract

Absolute linguistic universals are often justified by cross-linguistic analysis: If all observed languages exhibit a property, the property is taken to be a likely universal, perhaps specified in the cognitive or linguistic systems of language learners and users. In many cases, these patterns are then taken to motivate linguistic theory. Here, we show that cross-linguistic analysis will very rarely be able to statistically justify absolute, inviolable patterns in language. We formalize two statistical methods—frequentist and Bayesian—and show that in both it is possible to find strict linguistic universals, but that the numbers of independent languages necessary to do so is generally unachievable. This suggests that methods other than typological statistics are necessary to establish absolute properties of human language, and thus that many of the purported universals in linguistics have not received sufficient empirical justification.