Parametric and Non-Parametric Variation

On Parametric (and Non-Parametric) Variation
Neil Smith & Ann Law

This article raises the issue of the correct characterization of ‘Parametric Variation’ in syntax and phonology. After specifying their theoretical commitments, the authors outline the relevant parts of the Principles–and– Parameters framework, and draw a three-way distinction among Universal Principles, Parameters, and Accidents. The core of the contribution then consists of an attempt to provide identity criteria for parametric, as opposed to non-parametric, variation. Parametric choices must be antecedently known, and it is suggested that they must also satisfy seven individually necessary and jointly sufficient criteria. These are that they be cognitively represented, systematic, dependent on the input, deterministic, discrete, mutually exclusive, and irreversible.


parametric variation; phonology; syntax; universals

A persistent preoccupation of generative linguistics has been the tension, bordering on paradox, between two questions: “Why are there so many languages?” and “Why are they all so similar?”. The tension is sufficiently great that many writers, dazzled by the obviousness of the first, are tempted to deny the truth of the second: Evans & Levinson’s (2009) ‘The myth of language universals’ is a recent example. A resolution of the tension can be found in the framework of ‘Principles–and–Parameters’ (Chomsky 1981a, 1981b; for overviews and history, see Roberts 1997, Baker 2001, and especially Biberauer 2008a), but making this claim plausible to the skeptics necessitates elaboration and refinement of the theory, in particular of the nature and scope of ‘parametric’ variation. It is this issue we try to address in the current contribution, suggesting identity criteria for parametric as opposed to non-parametric differences among languages. The situation is reminiscent of the debate about human types: The apparent obvious diversity of different ‘races’ disguises...