DGfS workshop “Universals in grammatical theorizing” (2020)

A workshop at the DGfS Annual Conference in Hamburg, 2020 March 4-6 (organized by Martin Haspelmath)

Empirical consequences of universal claims in grammatical theorizing

Universals of grammar have played a prominent role in general linguistics since the 1960s, but the connection between universal claims and empirical testing has often been tenuous. The great majority of linguists have always been working on a single language, but many of them now strive to contribute to a larger enterprise. Thus, general claims have often been based initially on a few languages, or even just on one. As a result, the literature is full of proposals that have broad implications while we do not know to what extent they are true.

This workshop is intended to complement the conference theme of “linguistic diversity” by focusing on empirical evidence for linguistic uniformity, but from a variety of different perspectives. Evidence for universal claims can come from a wide range of sources, e.g.

  • large-scale worldwide grammar-mining (along the lines of Greenberg’s seminal work)
  • large text collections, either parallel (Cysouw & Wälchli 2007), or annotated in a parallel way (Universal Dependencies, Nivre et al. 2016)
  • artificial language learning experiments, because these remove the conventionality that is associated with all naturally developed languages (e.g. Culbertson 2012)
  • the absence of a credible way of learning the relevant pattern (poverty of the stimulus, Lasnik & Lidz 2016)
  • – the absence of published counterevidence to well-known claims

This workshop would ideally bring together general linguists with diverse theoretical outlooks, so in addition to papers that discuss actual evidence for actual universal claims, it is also open to well-argued contributions questioning the idea that special evidence is needed for universal claims, and/or that justify the widespread practice of basing general claims on few languages.

Invited speakers


Wednesday March 4th

We 13:45 Martin Haspelmath (MPI-SHH & Leipzig University) Testable universals, the natural-kinds programme, and presupposed universals in grammatical theorizing

We 14:15 Katharina Hartmann (Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main) Peripheral prominence: Intonation languages vs. tone languages

We 14:45 Stefan Müller (Humboldt University Berlin): Searching for universals: Deriving generalizations from data

We 15:15 Sterre Leufkens (Utrecht University) Is redundancy as universal as linguists say it is?

We 16:30 András Bárány (Leiden University) Universal patterns in case and agreement alignment [canceled]

We 17:00 Jane Middleton (University College London) An investigation of *ABA patterns of syncretism in the pronominal domain [canceled]

We 17:30 Aleksandrs Berdicevskis (University of Gothenburg) Do morphological oppositions obey Zipf’s law of abbreviation? Quantitative evidence from 54 languages

Thursday March 5th

Th 9:00 Annemarie Verkerk (Saarland University), Hannah Haynie (University of Colorado), Russell Gray, Simon Greenhill, Olena Shcherbakova & Hedvig Skirgård (MPI-SHH Jena) Testing Greenberg’s universals on a global scale

Th 9:30 Steve Pepper (University of Oslo) A new perspective on compounding as a universal [canceled]

Th 10:00 Jingting Ye (Leipzig University) Differential coding in property words: A typological study

Th 11:15 Daniel Hole (University of Stuttgart) Languages turn out more similar if one looks out for similarities

Th 11:45 Natalia Levshina (MPI for Psycholinguistics) Corpora and language universals: Opportunities and challenges

Th 12:15 Hisao Tokizaki (Sapporo University) & Yasutomo Kuwana (Asahikawa Medical University) Greenberg’s Universal 25 and its exception [canceled]

Th 13:45 Olga Zamaraeva, Kristen Howell, Emily M. Bender & Chris Curtis (University of Washington, Seattle) Integrated testing of typological hypotheses at scale

Th 14:15 Thomas McFadden (Leibniz-ZAS Berlin), Sandhya Sundaresan (Leipzig University) and Hedde Zeijlstra (University of Göttingen) Adjunct islands and the interplay of theoretical and empirical factors in refining universal claims

Friday March 6th

Fr 11:45 Sandra McGury (GIT, Atlanta) The Poverty of the Stimulus: Arguments from word order in second language acquisition of German

Fr 12:15 Ilja I. Seržant (Leipzig University) Typology meets efficiency research: Evolution of bound person-number indexes

Fr 12:45 Susanne Maria Michaelis (Leipzig University & MPI-SHH Jena) Creole data support universal coding asymmetries [canceled]


  • Culbertson, Jennifer. 2012. Typological universals as reflections of biased learning: Evidence from artificial language learning. Language and Linguistics Compass 6(5). 310–329.
  • Cysouw, Michael & Bernhard Wälchli. 2007. Parallel texts: Using translational equivalents in linguistic typology. STUF – Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 60(2). 95–99.
  • Lasnik, Howard & Jeffrey L. Lidz. 2016. The argument from the poverty of the stimulus. In Ian G. Roberts (ed.), The Oxford handbook of universal grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nivre, Joakim, Marie-Catherine De Marneffe, Filip Ginter, Yoav Goldberg, Jan Hajic, Christopher D. Manning, Ryan T. McDonald, Slav Petrov, Sampo Pyysalo & Natalia Silveira. 2016. Universal Dependencies v1: A multilingual treebank collection. LREC 2016.

Call for abstracts

Abstracts for 30-minute oral presentations are invited (ca. 20 minutes presentation time + discussion). They should not exceed one page and can (but need not) be anonymous. Please submit your abstract to universal.claims.theorizing@gmail.com.

Abstract submission deadline: 31-Aug-2019
Notification of acceptance: 6-Sep-2019

Please note that the regulations of the DGfS do not allow that workshop participants present two or more (single-authored) papers in different workshops.