Impossible Languages

Impossible Languages

By Andrea Moro

An investigation into the possibility of impossible languages, searching for the indelible “fingerprint” of human language.





An investigation into the possibility of impossible languages, searching for the indelible “fingerprint” of human language.

Can there be such a thing as an impossible human language? A biologist could describe an impossible animal as one that goes against the physical laws of nature (entropy, for example, or gravity). Are there any such laws that constrain languages? In this book, Andrea Moro—a distinguished linguist and neuroscientist—investigates the possibility of impossible languages, searching, as he does so, for the indelible “fingerprint” of human language.

Moro shows how the very notion of impossible languages has helped shape research on the ultimate aim of linguistics: to define the class of possible human languages. He takes us beyond the boundaries of Babel, to the set of properties that, despite appearances, all languages share, and explores the sources of that order, drawing on scientific experiments he himself helped design. Moro compares syntax to the reverse side of a tapestry revealing a hidden and apparently intricate structure. He describes the brain as a sieve, considers the reality of (linguistic) trees, and listens for the sound of thought by recording electrical activity in the brain. Words and sentences, he tells us, are like symphonies and constellations: they have no content of their own; they exist because we listen to them and look at them. We are part of the data.


$21.95 T ISBN: 9780262034890 160 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 2 b&w illus.


  • Impossible Languages is written in a succinct and easy-to-follow style, focusing on what makes human language distinct from any other communication system.

    Journal of Universal Language


  • Moro's sparkling overview of the conditions of possibility of language will entertain and instruct all who are perplexed by the mystery of human communication. Joining traditional studies of syntax to advances in neurology, Moro shows that the human mind, despite its almost infinite ingenuity, can't invent a language that doesn't share the fundamental properties of language itself.

    David Bellos

    Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature, Princeton University, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything

  • Can human language vary in limitless ways? Or are there impossible human languages? In this beautifully written and insightful work Andrea Moro draws on his work on language and the brain to make a powerful case for there being intelligible limits to possible human languages.

    Barry C. Smith

    Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London, coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language


  • Honorable Mention, 2017 PROSE Awards, Language and Linguistics