I think I am understanding something incorrectly in Optimality Theory but I can't figure out how. So, constraints are universal but rankings are language-specific. So, I read an analysis where they ranked one constraint higher over the others in a particular language. Then they did the factorial typology, and after they got all the t-orders, they said that the typological entailments are implicational universals. I don't understand why these are called universals, when they were calculated with a language-specific ranking. What am I understanding wrongly? I would appreciate any help, thank you.

1 Answer 1


A "universal" in their sense refers to the possible input-output relations in all human languages. With partially-ordered constraints, two constraints allow 3 different languages. Any particular language has to select either A>B, B>C or A=B so the premise is not that there is only one universally possible grammar, rather, grammars are drawn from a universe populated by three possibilities. For 2 constraints; as you can imagine, if you expand the set of constraints to 10K or so, there are more possibilities.

"Implicational universal" is an old term of art (coming, non-ironically, from Stanford) originated by Greenberg, to the effect that "If a language does X, it must do Y". This is instantiated in older OT models via the concept of "harmonic bounding". This is a way of saying that not every descriptively imaginable situation can be realized, given some theory of what the primitives of OT are.

  • Thank you very much. So if I'm understanding your comment correctly, an implicational universal is not actually a universal, but rather it only refers to those languages that have that one particular constraint ranking?
    – h061
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 2:48
  • No, it refers to a logical relation between properties, for instance "if a language has voiced fricatives, it must also have voiced fricatives". This would then follow from some premise about constraint statements.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 4:26
  • Ok sorry, so it is a relationship that will be true of the possible languages that have that particular ranking of constraints
    – h061
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 5:44

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