After studying many different languages, linguists have found that there are linguistic universals or languages that are close to the universals. Although many of these universals are violated in at least some natural languages, keeping them in mind can help to create a more realistic-seeming conlang. Explanations of some universals are given here.
One of the biggest concerns of modern linguistics is to discover the fundamental principles that underly all human language. This will be the motivation for further development of the theories that have been covered as you will see in the advanced syntax tutorial. But even at the level that we're currently working on, there are some trends within natural languages that we can explore, which give us insight into things ranging from how cognitive processes formulate sentences to how grammatical features develop over time.
These trends are called Linguistic Universals or Universals of Grammar, and they come in two types: mere statistical trends, and true universals (or “implicational universals”). The statistical trends are just that — trends that appear in patterning that likely come about through historical change under the influence of any number of forces such as ease of cognition. Implication universals, on the other hand, tend to be much more closely followed, and often make predictive statements that say if a language has feature X, it will almost assuredly have feature Y as well.
There are also other ways of dividing universals, namely by the parts of a language that they affect. Phonetic/phonological universals involve the sounds and sound changes that a language goes through, morphological universals involve word structure and morphemes, etc. In this section we will be covering the universals that can be related to syntax, and I will explore possible ways that these universals can arise from syntax.
Word Order Universals
Word order typology is the classification of languages by how certain types of words are ordered relative to one another in a sentence or constituent. The most common word order typological classification is the order of subjects (the noun that is verbing), objects (the noun that is getting verbed), and verbs (the action) within a sentence. Since there are three types of words, we have six possible configurations: VSO, SVO, SOV, VOS, OVS, OSV. In surveys of natural languages, the first three, with the subject preceding the object, are overwhelmingly used as the normal declarative word order, the latter three comprising lower single digit percentages. We’ll call these two word orders SO and OS, respectively. For each of the word orders we’ll also identify them by the position of the verb, I, II, and III for verb first, second, and third, respectively. A language can then be classified by a combination of both, as SO/I, OS/III, etc. Because SO word order is more common than OS, SO word order can simply be assumed on bare verb position numbers (e.g. III would mean SO/III, not OS/III, etc.).
A second way of classifying languages is by their use of prepositions or postpositions, which we can call Pr and Po, respectively. A third is the order of adjectives and nouns; if a noun comes before its adjectives, we can call this N, if a noun comes after its adjective we can call this A. Looking at the Pr/Po and A/N classifications in relation to I/II/III classification we can find some interesting trends, such as type I languages are often Pr, and type III languages usually being Po, etc. We can now make a list of possible configurations (ignoring the rare OS configurations) and look at their frequency.
- I-PR-A: Rare
- I-PR-N: Common
- I-PO-A: Rare
- I-PO-N: Rare
- II-PR-A: Common
- II-PR-N: More Common
- II-PO-A: Rare
- II-PO-N: Less Rare
- III-PR-A: Rare
- III-PR-N: Rare
- III-PO-A: More Common
- III-PO-N: Common
Just from this bit of data, and our knowledge of syntax from before, we notice a trend that would be helpful in constructing a believable language. The common forms, I-PR-N, II-PR, and III-PO, all show, by contrast to other forms or by contrast to sub-forms, a preference for keeping consistent head positioning, i.e. languages prefer to be as consistently head-initial or head-final as possible.
Syntactic universals are more specific than the typical word order universals. They still are visible in the word order of a sentence, but they tend to be much more specialized in scope. For example, question particles in yes/no questions tend to appear after the word they mark, and they tend to appear more in type II and III languages; when they appear in type I languages, the particle appears before the word they mark. Auxiliary verbs, too, show interesting syntactic patterning that follows from the generalization about consistent head positioning.
Morphosyntactic universals are in between syntactic universals and morphological universals in that they involve morphological tendencies in relationship to syntactic features. For example, what we find is that morphological items tend to behave similar to heads in PPs, in that if a language has just suffixing, then it should behave like a language with postpositions and be type III, and indeed this turns out to be the case. Indeed, if a language has just suffixes then it has postpositions, if it has just prefixes then it has prepositions. If it has both types of affix there is a small chance it may have both types or more often only one.
In the case of agreement between nouns and adjectives, N languages always have agreeing adjectives. More generally, type III languages almost always have case systems. The full complexity of syntax related tendencies among languages is beyond the scope of this section, but you can read more about them here.
Some of the implications that we can derive from these universals would make a nice set of grammatical rules. For instance, the tendency for affixes to behave like adpositions might indicate some hidden structure that involves the affixes as the head of some adposition-like phrase, undergoing some sort of historical change from an adposition to an affix, thus giving us an idea of how to evolve a constructed language. The tendency for languages to try to be consistent in their head positioning could result from a historical process of that changes parts of speech into one another. Alternatively, to make a truly alien feeling language, these universals could be reversed, making a Po type I language or something similar. Knowing the universals clearly makes it easier to create both a naturalist language as well as interesting alien languages, but harder to create a blend.