Grammatical Universals project information


The project (November 2015 through October 2020) was hosted by Leipzig University, Philological Faculty (Institut für Anglistik). Our offices were in Nikolaistrasse 10, very close to historic Nikolaikirchplatz (the rallying point of the famous Monday Demonstrations of the Peaceful Revolution), within Strohsack Passage (5th floor).

Project members

PI: Martin Haspelmath

researchers: Natalia Levshina, Susanne Maria Michaelis, Karsten Schmidtke-Bode, Ilja Seržant, Katarzyna Janic, Dan Ke, Jingting Ye, Iren Hartmann, Johannes Englisch

coordinator: Darja Dermaku-Appelganz

Summary of the research topic

This project aims to document and explain a substantial number of grammatical universals by demonstrating a link between cross-linguistic patterns of language form and general trends of language use. The claim is that frequently expressed meanings tend to be expressed by short forms, not only at the level of words, but also throughout the grammars of languages around the world (form-frequency correspondences). A simple example is the asymmetry in the coding of present-tense forms and future-tense forms in the world’s languages, as one out of a multitude of analogous cases: Present-tense forms tend to be short or zero-coded, while future-tense forms tend to be longer or to have an overt marker. This corresponds to a usage asymmetry: Present-tense forms are generally more frequent than future-tense forms, in all languages. The proposed explanation is that higher-frequency items are more predictable than lower-frequency items, and predictable content need not be expressed overtly or can be expressed by shorter forms. Form-frequency correspondences thus make language structure more efficient, but it still needs to be shown that there exists a mechanism that creates and maintains these efficient structures: recurrent instances of language change driven by the speakers’ preference for user-friendly utterances. The project thus combines cross-linguistic research on grammar, cross-linguistic corpus research and historical linguistics.


The project participants were several postdocs with expertise and interest in the areas of world-wide comparative grammar, typologically oriented diachronic linguistics and comparative corpus linguistics: Susanne Maria Michaelis, Natalia Levshina, Ilja Seržant,  Karsten Schmidtke-Bode, Katarzyna Janic, plus a few further researchers and doctoral students (Jingting Ye, Dan Ke, Iren Hartmann, Johannes Englisch), as well as various guests.

Project outline

A six-page description of the project goals (from the application text) can be found here.


This project (officially called “Form-frequency correspondences in grammar”, or FormGram) has received funding from the ERC (European Research Council) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no 670985).