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4 - In search of universals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2010

Ian Maddieson
Affiliation:
Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles
Ricardo Mairal
Affiliation:
Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid
Juana Gil
Affiliation:
Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid
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Summary

What are universals?

In everyday life we are struck by the differences between languages. When we overhear a conversation between people speaking a language we have no knowledge of, we find it completely impenetrable. There is something disturbing, even sinister, about a language you do not understand at all. The fear this engenders is part of what tempts authoritarians everywhere to ban the use of unfamiliar languages, and enforce the use of the familiar. Unfamiliar languages are also frequently looked down on as unstructured and incapable of serving to convey more than simple messages. Linguists confront this fear and contempt, and it is part of the value of the mainstream traditions of linguistics as a humanistic discipline that they insist on the equal worth of every language. Every language is considered equal, in the sense of meriting equally serious consideration, akin to the way that all people are declared to be “equal in dignity and rights” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948). In contrast to lay emphasis on linguistic differences, for linguists the demonstration of similarities between languages functions at the same time as one of the ways in which the proposition of equality is supported and as one of the reasons why linguists hold this view. We feel justified in constructing general theories within which the peculiarities of individual languages can be described, rather than taking it as our task to build quite separate theories for different languages.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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  • In search of universals
    • By Ian Maddieson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Edited by Ricardo Mairal, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, Juana Gil, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid
  • Book: Linguistic Universals
  • Online publication: 08 January 2010
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511618215.005
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To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

  • In search of universals
    • By Ian Maddieson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Edited by Ricardo Mairal, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, Juana Gil, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid
  • Book: Linguistic Universals
  • Online publication: 08 January 2010
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511618215.005
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • In search of universals
    • By Ian Maddieson, Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Edited by Ricardo Mairal, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, Juana Gil, Universidad National de Educación a Distancia, Madrid
  • Book: Linguistic Universals
  • Online publication: 08 January 2010
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511618215.005
Available formats
×