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Variation and universals in language

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The implications of typological evidence for formal grammar

An important part of the generative enterprise has been to capture the tension between universals and language variation. On the one hand, it is assumed that grammars of individual languages cannot vary unlimitedly; on the other hand, we need to take into account that languages do differ in many details.

In this sense, then, there is a way in which formal grammatical theory has an overlap in interest with linguistic typology. There are important differences, of course:  typologists tend to take ‘languages’ rather than ‘grammars’ as their object of study, and this has important implications for how certain types of evidence are weighed (witness the debate about the Evans & Levinson paper on universals a few years ago).


In this workshop, we want to bring together different ideas about how to deal with typological evidence (in formal grammar). What is the best way to describe language variation in grammatical terms? What is the precise relation between Greenbergian and Chomskyan universals? (Is “none” really the only answer?) How do we deal with individual apparent ‘counterexamples’? What about implicational universals? And what about statistical tendencies? For which of such empirical issues do we hold the grammar responsible and which other kinds of cognitive or other factors might also play a role?


We hope to deepen the discussion of these issues by bringing together formal phonologists, morphologists and syntacticians which have developed sometimes rather different approaches to these issues, as well as typologists, in the hope of generating an engaging discussion on what “language-specific” vs “universal” really means.


This workshop aims at discussing crucial issues, so we would not want to spend all our time in presentations. In order to have as much room for discussion as  possible, we have asked the speakers to send a short position statement a month before of the workshop. You can find the statements in the program below.

 Program and position Statements 

Anchor 1

 Friday, 9 June 

 9:00                Registration*

9:45         Welcome address by Nicolino Di Paolo, mayor of Crecchio

10:00       Roberta D’Alessandro (Universiteit Utrecht) &

                Marc van Oostendorp (Meertens Instituut Amsterdam)

                Introducing the issue: universals and linguistic variation

 Session 1 – Linguistic Universals: are there such things? 

10:20       David Adger (Queen Mary University, London)

                Three types of Universals; Three types of Variation .pdf

10:40       Martin Haspelmath (Max Planck Institute-SHH Jena / Universität Leipzig)

                The DNA and evolution of language structures .pdf

 11:00              Coffee break 

11:30       Discussion (Discussant: Marc van Oostendorp)

 12:30             Lunch break 

 Session 2 – Looking for universal laws 

14:30       Rita Manzini (Università di Firenze)

                Oblique modification: Universals and (micro)variation .pdf

14:50       Heather Newell (Université du Québec à Montreal)

                Typological Tendencies in Phonological Conspiracies .pdf

15:10       Ángel Gallego (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

                     Networks in Linguistic Variation. From the Chomsky Hierarchy to Parameter Schemata .pdf

15:30       Anna Maria Di Sciullo (Université du Québec à Montreal)

                Language Universals, Symmetry Breaking and Third Factor Principles .pdf

 15:50             Coffee Break 

16:20       Discussion (Discussant: Marjo van Koppen)

 18:00              Aperitivo – Wine Tasting offered by Farnese Vini *

 Saturday, 10 June 

 Session 3 – The learnability issue 

9:30         Theresa Biberauer (University of Cambridge / Stellenbosch University)

                Going beyond the input: three factors and language acquisition .pdf

9:50         Giorgio Magri (CNRS / Université Paris 8)

                Learnability to the rescue of the quest for phonological universals .pdf

10:10       Discussion (Discussant: Birgit Alber)

 10:50              Coffee break 

 Session 4 – How to make order in the chaos –  methods for variational research 

11:20       Andrea Sansò (Università dell'Insubria)

                What diachronic typology can tell us about language universals and variation .pdf

11:40       Birgit Alber (Università di Verona)

                The implications of formal typological analysis for the investigation of typological evidence .pdf

12:00       Discussion (Discussant: Jeroen van Craenenbroeck)      

 13:00             Lunch 

 14:30             Excursion/sightseeing *

 20:00             Social Dinner *

 Sunday, 11 June 

 Session 5 – Grammar vs “the real world” 

9:30         Andries Coetzee (University of Michigan)

                Grammar, Variation and Typology in Phonology .pdf

9:50         Jeroen van Craenenbroeck (KU Leuven) &

                Marjo van Koppen (Universiteit Utrecht)

                A micro-perspective on variation and universals .pdf

10:10       Tobias Scheer (Université Nice Sophia Antipolis)

                On the origin and distribution of universals .pdf

10:30       Discussion (Discussant: David Adger)

 11:30              Coffee break 

12:00       General discussion: what have we learnt?

                (Discussants: Roberta D’Alessandro and Marc van Oostendorp)

 13:00             Lunch and Farewell*

* The non-academic activities are for speakers only

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