Anthropology and Linguistics: What do languages teach us about the past? Are there universal laws for each human language?

[ 0 ] October 24, 2013 |

KNAW Conference on Diversity and Universals in Language, Culture, and Cognitionimages

Recently the Language Diversity: Genesis, Historical Development, and Cognition Program, initiated by Pieter Muysken (Nijmegen), Maarten Mous (Leiden), and John Nerbonne (Groningen) has been funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The main aim of this program is to link the themes involved in two major research questions that have been formulated by the KNAW, namely the historical question What do languages teach us about the past? and the cognitive question Are there universal laws for each human language? To this purpose three major conferences have been organized, in which we brought and will bring together Dutch and foreign researchers working on language diversity from a historical and a cognitive perspective. In doing so, we hope to strengthen the specialism by broadening the relationships with other disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, cognitive sciences, and genetics.

By further developing the different approaches to diversity, major digital linguistic databases can be used systematically in future research in language diversity. Within the various disciplines of humanities different thoughts exist about the weight of universal aspects of human cognition, language, and culture (universalism) and of aspects specific to a particular people or to a certain tradition (relativism). Broadly speaking, whereas within anthropology relativism dominates, within linguistics opinions are strongly divided, while many cognitive scientists (particularly in
the corner of neurocognition) take a universal position. In the last conference in the series of three, Diversity and Universals in Language, Culture, and Cognition, the various dimensions of this controversy will be highlighted in terms of conceptual frameworks, empirical evidence, and research methodology.

The scientific study of human cognition, language, and culture is far from uniform in terms of centrality of explanations based on universal aspects or not. In this conference we want to study the value of universal explanations in terms of conceptual frameworks, empirical evidence, and research methods. Language research over the last 50 years has been characterized by two apparently contradictory tendencies: on the one hand much research has been carried out from the perspective of cognitive science in the areas of linguistic competence, acquisition, and processing. In this research the unity of the human language capacities, as part of the ‘psychic unity of mankind’, is a central postulate. On the other hand, descriptive and comparative linguists have uncovered considerable differences between the languages of the world, which has greatly stretched our view of the boundaries of human language capacities. The key question is how to reconcile these two tendencies.

Questions to be asked include in particular:

1. How are diversity and universals in human behavior perceived and studied in different disciplines?
2. What are the limits of language diversity? What are new insights after decades of grammar writing of hitherto under described languages? In which domains do we still know far too little? Do true universals exist? To what extent do spoken and signed languages have the same properties?
3. Which aspects of our language capacity are responsible for the impressive language diversity? Why are languages so different?
4. Are there differences in language acquisition and in language processing that can be related to structural differences of languages?
5. How does language diversity come about and how does it stabilize? What is the importance of language diversity in evolution?

There is strong tradition in the Netherlands in research in language diversity, in the cognitive basis of languages, and in universal grammar. At this conference we also want to discuss where the future of Dutch linguistics lies, and how to strengthen Dutch research in linguistics in view of these questions and the expectations regarding the main developments in linguistics.

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