The (non-)universality of syntactic selection and functional application
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Nothing beats diversity for finding out what is truly universal about natural languages. But the importance of diversity goes beyond the obvious fact that universality can be recognized only in the face of diversity. Coming to grips with languages that differ in important ways from more familiar languages forces us to recognize implicit analytical assumptions. Rather than assuming a requisite ‘traditional’ way of analyzing certain data, we must instead acknowledge the assumptions our analysis depends upon, assumptions that demand justification. Confronting an ‘exotic’ language (where exotic means distinct from what we know) forces us to ask what the empirical basis is for an analysis; it can also drive us to conceive of a new and different organization of the grammatical systems of the languages we already know much about. In short, it can wake us up from a dogmatic slumber. For some, the idea that languages are quite diverse in their grammatical systems is a given (e.g. Evans and Levinson 2009), so drawing attention to the value of diversity is not new. We pose a further question in this paper: What takes the place of features that are often thought to be universal but that we show are only very frequent? To put it another way, we engage in a kind of reconstruction of our analytical tools using the rather ‘exotic’ language Oneida, a Northern Iroquoian language.