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Information in this page copyright 2001 Brigham Young University Department of Linguistics. Permission to duplicate this material for non-commercial academic purposes is freely given, provided BYU is noted as the copyright holder.

This page last updated March 22, 2001 at 10:30 p.m.MDT by Daniel Roundy, dqr@ttt.org


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Unresolved issues

This page lists the most important unresolved issues in linguistics, according to BYU linguists and associate linguists.


  • What is Linguistics?
  • Should a linguistic model be generative in that it does something on its own and you can walk away and let it do it?
  • Should Linguistics be scientific?
  • What are we trying to explain with the study of linguistics?
  • Is there a fundamental difference between natural and formal languages?
  • Is language just a mass illusion, or is there something "real" to language?
  • Analogical Model of Language: What possible alternatives are there to a strictly rule-based approach?
  • Can a rule based approach actually account for linguistic behavior?
  • Is natural language the sum of multiple, well defined domains, or is it more?
  • Is the grammatical aspect of language solved (in relation to replicating language on a computer)?
  • Is linguistics a science?
  • Although we like to use rules to describe the world around us, including language, is it possible that as we produce language, we are not really using those rules anymore?
  • Physis vs. Nomos (or the issue of arbitrariness in language): Do items and concepts, etc. in a language have names that correspond to their very nature (physis), or are the names of concepts and ideas, etc. arbitrary, and dependent upon an agreed upon convention? Does language fall somewhere in between these two positions?
  • Positivism vs Post Modernism: Is there one taxonomy that accounts for all possible entities and elements in the world, or is everyone's truth in their own head? What other possibilities are there between the two extremes of Possitivism and Post-Modernism?
  • Would the creation or acceptance of a single world language really prevent dissagreement between people and wars between nations?
  • Is it possible to find language primitives upon which all language is based?
  • What is the relationship between human language and animal communication?
  • The alleged primacy of spoken language over written and signed and other forms of language.
  • Is Language simply a combination of domains, or is there something fundamentally different about language?
  • Are there views of the universe that are fundamentally incommensurate (that cannot be "built from the same set of building blocks")?

Phonetics, Phonology, & Morphology:

  • What is the relationship between articulatory and acoustic phonectics and phonology?
  • What makes the vocal cords do all the things that they do?
  • What is the actual physiological sequence in the production of implosives?

Syntax & Semantics:

  • Do we need a model that will create the rules of a grammar itself, or is it acceptable to come up with the rules using any method, as long as we can prove them through testing?
  • Who decides if a sentence is grammatical or not?
  • Is grammaticality and acceptability of a sentence the same thing? (Can a sentence be acceptable and still be ungrammatical? Can it be grammatical but unacceptable?) Does the asterisk represent ungrammaticality or unacceptability?
  • Is it possible to create a Universal Grammar that will apply across all languages?
  • How do different dialects and different speech by different generations work into a model for Universal Grammar?
  • Does a Universal Grammar need to cross generations to be universal?
  • Is it necessary to look at language data that has actually been spoken in context, or can we rely on our own intuitions about what is and isn't acceptable in our own language?
  • How do we define creativity in linguistics? Can we consider a finite state machine that comes up with an infinite set of utterances to be creative, because its resulting set is infinite? Does infiniteness automatically imply creativity? Or is it a more appropriate definition to say that creativity necessarily implies the creation of utterances that are unpredictable?
  • How can we appropriately deal with ambiguity and paraphrase in a Universal Grammar or in other semantic models?
  • How can we appropriately deal with context in a Universal Grammar or in other semantic models?
  • We define words in terms of other words, which are also defined in terms of other words (some of which may be the words we started out with). Is there any way out of the circle? Is there ever a time that we will come to a definition for a word that doesn't rely on the definitions of other words?
  • Do transformational rules affect semantics?
  • Proper understanding of meaning: What is meaning really?
  • Where are grammatical principles and/or innate rules written in the neurons?

Historical & Comparative Linguistics:

  • Did all languages descend from one common ancestor language (monogenesis), from a few ancestor languages (oligogenesis), or from a large number of ancestor languages (polygenesis)?
  • Is there truth to the Nostratic Hypothesis?
  • Where did writing come from? (Reader's Digest version is that we began with pictograms, then went to ideograms, then to syllabaries, and finally to alphabets, but we haven't ever found a good example of pictographic writing, and in addition, we see all of these different systems coocurring in the same time frame)
  • Is it possible to define the difference between languages, dialects, and ideolects? What is the possible impact of political influences on the distinction?
  • Many issues in the area of language families--which languages are related to each other and how closely are they related? How can we find/make a reliable method for finding out more of this information?
  • The alleged primacy of synchronic "context-free" linguistics over diachronic "context-sensitive" studies.

Language Acquisition:

  • Child vs. Adult language acquisition: What are the similarities and differences between the two?
  • What is the role of grammar in language learning?
  • What is the role of grammatical instruction in language learning?
  • There is much emphasis placed upon the importance of language input for the language learner. What affect does language production (by the language learner) have on language acquisition?
  • Where are grammatical principles and/or innate rules written in the neurons?
  • How does initial language capacity develop into full language capacity?

Languages and Computers:

  • How can we recognize, analyze, and synthesize speech electronically?
  • How do we characterize the nature of language for computer purposes?
  • What is the most effective model to use to do linguistic parsing, analysis, etc. on computer?

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