List of unsolved problems in linguistics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This article discusses currently unsolved problems in linguistics.

Some of the issues below are commonly recognized as unsolved problems; i.e. it is generally agreed that no solution is known. Others may be described as controversies; i.e. although there is no common agreement about the answer, there are established schools of thought that believe they have a correct answer.


  • Is there a universal definition of word?
  • Is there a universal definition of sentence?
  • Are there any universal grammatical categories?
  • Is syntactic structure constructed of part-whole relations of syntactic constituents or is it built of an asymmetrical dependency relation between words?
  • Can the elements contained in words (morphemes) and the elements contained in sentences (words or syntactic constituents) be shown to follow the same principles of combination?
  • How are domains for phonological processes related to syntactic structure? Do prosodic domains deviate from syntactic constituent structure?
  • Is it possible to formally delineate languages from each other? That is to say, is it possible to use linguistic (rather than social) criteria to draw a clear boundary between two closely related languages with a dialect continuum between their respective standard forms (e.g. Occitan and Catalan)?
  • How does grammaticalization function?
  • What constitutes grammatically correct language, as viewed by native speakers of that particular language, i.e. the problem of gradient well-formedness?
  • Is there one universal process with which the evolution of creole languages can be tracked?
  • How does lexical substitution function given the potentially limitless number of different contexts, the limits of one's knowledge and the limits of one's understanding and usage of language?
  • How do idiolects and dialects emerge? Are there any common patterns in their development? Can they be quantitatively and qualitatively measured at all and if so, how?

Philosophy of language[edit]


  • Origin of language and origin of speech are major unsolved problems, despite centuries of interest in these topics.[1][2][3][4][5]
  • Unclassified languages (languages whose genetic affiliation has not been established, mostly due to lack of reliable data) make up about 38 of the 6,000–7,000 languages spoken in the world.[6] An additional 45 languages are classified as language isolates, with no demonstrable relationship to other languages.[6]
  • Can we use the comparative method to reconstruct back to an arbitrary time depth, or do we need new methods to reconstruct the distant past of languages? Is there a time depth beyond which we cannot reconstruct? Can we ever demonstrate that all languages are ultimately related to each other, or that they aren't?
  • Undeciphered writing systems
  • Is there an objective way to determine which are the most difficult languages?
  • How accurate are linguistic typology and language classification? What are the factors that influence them?
  • To what extent are conlangs usable and useful as used as natural languages by humans?[citation needed]


  • Language emergence:
  • Language acquisition:
    • Controversy: infant language acquisition / first language acquisition. How are infants able to learn language? One line of debate is between two points of view: that of psychological nativism, i.e., the language ability is somehow "hardwired" in the human brain, and that of the "tabula rasa" or blank slate, i.e., language is acquired due to brain's interaction with environment. Another formulation of this controversy is "nature versus nurture".
    • Is the human ability to use syntax based on innate mental structures or is syntactic speech the function of intelligence and interaction with other humans? The question is closely related to those of language emergence and acquisition.
    • The language acquisition device: How localized is language in the brain? Is there a particular area in the brain responsible for the development of language abilities or is it only partially localized?
    • What fundamental reasons explain why ultimate attainment in second language acquisition is typically some way short of the native speaker's ability, with learners varying widely in performance?
    • What are the optimal ways to achieve successful second-language acquisition?
    • Animals and language: How much language (e.g. syntax) can animals be taught to use? How much of animal communication can be said to have the same properties as human language (e.g. syntax)?
    • What role does linguistic intuition play, how is it formed and how does it function? Is it closely linked to exposure to a unique set of different experiences and their contexts throughout one's personal life?


  • How to deal with variation in language (including idiolects, dialects, sociolects, jargons, argots, etc.) to achieve effective and successful communication between individuals and between groups, i.e. what are the best ways to ensure efficient communication without misunderstandings: in everyday life and in educational, scientific and philosophical discussions?
  • What are the best ways to quantitatively and qualitatively compare linguistic competence and linguistic performance between individuals and between groups?
  • How does time (and the semantic change that it brings) and physical age influence linguistic competence?
  • How are argots formed, how do they function and what are the best ways to become proficient in an argot?
  • What causes linguistic features to begin to undergo language change at some points in time and in some dialects but not others?

Computational linguistics[edit]

  • Is perfect computational word-sense disambiguation attainable by using software? If yes, how and why? If no, why? (This presupposes the solution to the unsolved problems in the other areas of linguistics as a basis.)
  • Is accurate computational word-sense induction feasible? If yes, how and why? If not, why?

Lexicology and lexicography[edit]



  1. ^ Givon, Talmy; Bertram F. Malle (2002). The Evolution of Language Out of Pre-language. John Benjamins. ISBN 1-58811-237-3.
  2. ^ Deacon, Terrence (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-571-17396-9.
  3. ^ MacNeilage, Peter, 2008. The Origin of Speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Botha, R. and C. Knight (eds) 2009. The Cradle of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Dor, D., C. Knight & J. Lewis (eds), 2014. The Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ a b Lewis, M. Paul, ed. (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World (16 ed.). Dallas: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-216-2.
  7. ^ "Simulated Evolution of Language: a Review of the Field", Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 5, no. 2
  8. ^ Robert Spence, "A Functional Approach to Translation Studies. New systemic linguistic challenges in empirically informed didactics", 2004, ISBN 3-89825-777-0, thesis. A pdf file Archived 2006-05-06 at the Wayback Machine