It seems that there is a misunderstanding about what a "universal" is, in
terms of linguistics. As far back as Greenberg's "Universals of Language"
(1963) -- and probably earlier -- the term has meant a universal *tendency*
-- not a mathematical axiom nor a firm constraint.

As a trivial, non-linguistic, illustration of this terminological
confusion, consider this:

*It is observed that most people scratch their left hips with their left
hands and their right hips with their right hands. A hippy-guist states
that this is a universal, namely, "same-side-hip-scratchiness." Other
hippy-guists deride this, by pointing out that it's not a constraint nor
restriction, and in fact it is possible for people to scratch their left
hip with the right hand, and vice versa. The first hippy-guist simply
reiterates his claim of the universality of same-side-hip-scratchiness, and
goes on to say that this phenomenon is caused by the particular anatomy of
the human skeleton. The second group of hippy-guists say that this is
obvious, if not trivial, and moreover not part of the esteemed science of

(That was supposed to be "humerus" -- in case you were wondering. A little
"brachial" from the serious discussion, as it were.)

<ahem> And so, when people, as in the referenced article, are talking
about linguistic universals, please do not bring up counter-examples from
formal logic, mathematics, or computer science, where the term "universal"
has a decidedly different meaning. Also, please do not state that
something is trivial or boring. That is rather a dismissive comment. What
is boring to one may be interesting to others. (As, for example,
an acquaintance of mine who recently took a position crafting life
insurance policies, and chewed my ear off for near an hour about the
nuances of annuities -- and he wasn't trying to sell me one; he indeed
found the subject fascinating!)


On Mon, Aug 10, 2015 at 9:33 AM, Pete Bleackley <
[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> I saw a paper a while back arguing that anything truly universal to all
> human languages would be trivial and boring.
> Pete Bleackley
> The Fantastical Devices of Pete The Mad Scientist -
> Emily Semantic Recommendation -
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Matthew George <[log in to unmask]>
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Sent: Mon, 10 Aug 2015 5:31 pm
> Subject: Re: DLM (dependency length minimization)
> It seems pretty clear that there are no 'universals' restricting human
> communication.
> Matt G.