The Universals


A Brief Introduction for Prospective Users

Frans Plank and Elena Filimonova
(Universität Konstanz)

[Originally published in Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 53 (2000) 109-123; updated by Frans Plank and Thomas Mayer, Aug. 2006]


THE UNIVERSALS ARCHIVE aims to be a comprehensive documentation of the linguistic universals on record. Currently including over 2,000 entries, it has for some time now been available on the internet as a searchable database. For its updating and overhaul the cooperation of the typological community is solicited. Here we outline what kind of information is held in the archive and how it can be accessed and used.

1. The Remit

Typology is about how languages, or rather their grammars and lexicons, can and cannot differ from each other, and universals are the laws regulating crosslinguistic variation. Although the typological research programme has been under way for several centuries now, there is regrettably little awareness of just how many such putative laws have been accumulating. Often what comes to mind, even that of many a practicing typologist, is little more than (a subset of) the 40 or so universals suggested in GREENBERG (1963) and conveniently collected in the appendix of this modern classic. Perhaps, if universals had been named after their discoverer as laws are in other sciences (even when they are so unlawlike as Saussure?s Law and other such diachronic regularities, limited in scope to particular families or indeed languages), their impact would have been greater. In actual fact, there are laws galore on record, though few have been officially passed by the typological legislature and no systematic effort has ever been made at proper codification. In view of their significance for the field, these scattered laws, whatever their substance and quality, deserve to be collected and recorded and to be made available for ready consultation.

Occasionally, more or less narrowly circumscribed selections of universals have indeed been catalogued, notably in BURQUEST ET AL. (1982), KIRBY (1995), and PLANK (1998)1. Within the national typology programme of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, initiated in 1996, a more comprehensive effort in this direction has been made by the project "Sprachbauplšne", based at the Fachbereich Sprachwissenschaft of the Universitšt Konstanz2. The remit of this project was to document existing universals, no matter how hypothetical their validity, and not to suggest new ones: a putative universal needed to be in print, or at least be forthcoming, in order to get into THE UNIVERSALS ARCHIVE. All that was added when a universal was being archived were comments of various sorts, contributed by the archivists or again drawn from the literature. Although this collection of published universals was far from complete and the documentation of those already collected sometimes lacked polish, THE UNIVERSALS ARCHIVE was made available as a searchable database on the internet in 1999, as a tool for typologists and as an invitation for its further extension and refinement. What follows is a brief introduction of this archive for the special benefit of those who are accessing it at this address:

1. We hesitate also to mention D…CSY (1987). (back)
2. The project was directed by Frans Plank, with Elena Filimonova as a research associate. We gratefully acknowledge the archiving assistance of Shin-Sook Kim, Arista Da Silva, and Bernhard Metz, as well as technical help from Thilo Dannenmann and Emilia Nagy. (back)