Last month saw the publication of a paper by James and I (our first paper!) on the so-called ‘nomothetic’ approach to links between language structure and social structure. In it we review the recent trend of using large-scale cross-cultural statistical analyses to find links between cultural traits and social structures (e.g. Lupyan & Dale, 2010). We show that statistical tests can be misleading because of the nature of cultural systems. We also argue that using statistics alone does not provide strong explanatory power. However, they can be a valuable part of a pluralistic approach to problems – especially generating hypotheses and as a catalyst for debate. Other approaches can help support the suggestions made by nomothetic studies, such as experiments and models.
Perhaps as exciting, there are now some spurious correlations that are peer-reviewed! These include the link between tonal languages and the presence of acacia trees, and word order being linked to the number of offspring parents have.
Sean Roberts, & James Winters (2012). Social Structure and Language Structure: the New Nomothetic Approach. Psycology of Language Learning, 16 (2), 89-112 : 10.2478/v10057-012-0008-6
Lupyan G, & Dale R (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098492