Hypothesis-testing in comparative linguistics: Aprioristic categories cannot be disproven!

A few months after their (2014) target article with comments from de Reuse, Dryer and me were published in the “Perspectives” section of Language, Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson have published their response (DGM 2015). Their original claim was that a UG-oriented approach is better suited to the discovery of linguistic diversity, in contrast to some of the claims made by Levinson & Evans (2010). In particular, they stressed the need for systematic hypothesis-testing, which turned out to be uncontroversial.

In my commentary (Haspelmath 2014b), I noted that the main difference between two types of approaches is not between “C-linguists” and “D-linguists” (a strange distinction that they adopt from Levinson & Evans and continue to use in their response), but between linguists whose main goal is the discovery of UG (i.e. continuing the Chomskyan tradition) and linguists who want to chart all the existing diversity and eventually explain it in whatever way may be appropriate (i.e. continuing the Boasian and Greenbergian traditions).

DGM (2015) explain that they continue to disagree with the Boasian/Greenbergian linguists (even though they acknowledge the more conciliatory tone of the replies by de Reuse, Dryer and Haspelmath). But I was very happy to note that with respect to my own commentary, they at least agree on the nature of the disagreements. This is a first step toward resolving the disagreements, so I’d like to comment on these points a bit further.

A large number of theoretical linguists talk about “linguistic theory” as if there were only one way of doing it, so in my recent overview chapter on comparative syntax (Haspelmath 2014a) I contrasted two starkly different approaches: the restrictivist approach and the non-aprioristic approach. The former assumes that the features and categories of grammar are part of the innate UG, so that language description and language comparison are part of the same enterprise. This explains that in the original target article, DGM make no distinction between cross-linguistic comparison (as in the World Atlas of Language Structures, which they criticize) and language-specific generalizations, as discovered in original fieldwork. And in their response, they now confirm this: “there is no principled difference between descriptive and comparative fieldwork … for us, as for generative linguists generally, fieldwork is certainly part of a cross-linguistic investigation” (p. e135-e136).

In the non-aprioristic approach, as I described it, description is language-specific (using descriptive categories which may be unique to a language), while comparison makes use of special comparative concepts which may not be relevant to individual languages (see also Haspelmath 2010).

The crucial argument that DGM (2015) are making in the response is that while they adopt categories from another language when doing fieldwork (or even categories postulated as universal), these categories are not adopted “as analyses about other languages, but only as initial hypotheses, which are often disproven” (p. e135)

The mistake here is that categories cannot be disproven. The target article mentions a number of cases where claims about universals have been disproven by their work (e.g. the fact that Condition C of the binding theory is not always observed), but there is no way in which a category that is assumed as universal can be disproven. One can perhaps fail to find evidence in favour of a category (e.g. evidence in favour of a VP, or evidence in favour of binary branching), but if one assumes that all languages have binary branching and a VP, there is no problem. The resulting analysis may not be fully motivated by the language-specific phenomena, but this has never been stated as a requirement in generative linguistics.

Non-apriorists, by contrast, are often uncomfortable with analyses that seem to be motivated primarily by comparison with some other, better-known language – for example, the idea that a language like Latin has subject agreement with a null subject pronoun in a sentence like venit ‘he is coming’ strikes me as eurocentric (cf. Haspelmath 2013). The null pronoun is not motivated by anything in Latin, only by the comparison with English and German (which are VERY unusual in requiring both a pronoun and a person marker on the verb). Since categories cannot be disproven, one cannot show that it is wrong to say that Latin has a null pronoun, but this is what Levinson & Evans mean when they say that generative linguists take “off-the-shelf categories arising from specific grammatical traditions”, thus doing “procrustean violence” to the languages.

Another example of this is the claim that Pacific Northwest languages have a noun-verb distinction just like English (§4.1 of the target article), despite earlier claims by Swadesh and others. Of course, one CAN describe these languages in this way, just as one CAN describe Latin with null pronouns and Hungarian with a VP. But since we are talking about categories, one can never disprove such analyses – they just do not look pretty to a non-apriorist. Perhaps Swadesh was too much focused on the amazing and exotic predicate-argument flexibility of these languages that he failed to see the subtle ways in which subclasses can be established within the unitary verb-noun category of these languages. And if these subclasses are semantically close to the English verbs and nouns, the temptation is great to say that the Pacific Northwest languages have verbs and nouns in the same way (similarly, Sandra Chung succumbed to the temptation of saying that Chamorro has verbs and nouns like English, as discussed elsewhere). Now it is certainly interesting that these subclasses have been found, and that they match the English classes, but since the class-defining properties are quite different in the two types of languages, one cannot really say that one has discovered the same categories. This is somewhat like saying that Germany has representatives of the universal Hindu-Muslim distinction just because there are two different religions with a tradition of fighting against each other (and where one religion emphasizes scripture and lacks pictures in its mosques, while the other religion worships a whole range of male and female deities with various attributes in its temples). Such a claim cannot be disproven, and it might not even be wrong, who knows.

The larger moral of the basic point that categories cannot be disproven is that we should  focus more on claims that CAN be disproven, e.g. universals of the Greenbergian type (some of which have been disproven, cf. Dryer 1988). One such universal is Condition C, and DGM (2014) nicely showed that it does not hold exceptionlessly (though it may still hold with overwhelmingly greater than chance frequency). But in order to formulate testable universals, one needs categories that uncontroversially apply to all languages – i.e., categories such as VP or null pronouns cannot be part of testable claims. We thus need special comparative concepts, and this has been for me one of the main methodological lessons of the WALS and APiCS enterprises.


Davis, Henry, Carrie Gillon & Lisa Matthewson. 2014. How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest. Language 90(4). e180–e226.

Davis, Henry, Carrie Gillon & Lisa Matthewson. 2015. Diversity driven but cognitively constrained: Boas meets Chomsky (Response to commentators). Language 91(3). e127–e143.

Dryer, Matthew S. 1988. Object-verb order and adjective-noun order: Dispelling a myth. Lingua 74(2-3). 185–217.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663–687.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2013. Argument indexing: A conceptual framework for the syntax of bound person forms. In Dik Bakker & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), Languages across boundaries: Studies in memory of Anna Siewierska, 197–226. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2014. Comparative syntax. In Andrew Carnie, Yosuke Sato & Dan Siddiqi (eds.), The Routledge handbook of syntax, 490–508. London: Routledge.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2014b. Descriptive hypothesis testing is distinct from comparative hypothesis testing: Commentary on Davis, Gillon, and Matthewson. Language 90(4). e250–e257.

Levinson, Stephen C. & Nicholas Evans. 2010. Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on “The myth of language universals.” Lingua 120(12). 2733–2758.

Strong evidence that the roots of binding constraints are pragmatic from Cole et al. (2015)

Cole, Hermon, and Yanti’s (2015) new paper is an extremely important contribution that is likely to have a powerful impact on debates that focus on where grammatical constraints in languages come from. The authors compare Traditional Jambi Malay (TJM) with a dialect of Jambi Malay spoken in Jambi City (JCM). TJM is an example of a language in which the longer forms involve the addition of an intensifier or emphatic, which serves to indicate the pragmatically marked nature of the coreference (König & Siemund 2000; Levinson 2000). Continue reading

A proposal for the glossing of bound formatives without committing to their nature

Martin Haspelmath (2011) has argued that the notion ‘word’ is incoherent, and therefore is not useful as a cross-linguistically valid comparative concept or as a language-internal descriptive category. As a result, in his view, the distinction between bound formatives, e.g., affixes and clitics, is untenable. For example, in Lithuanian, the bound formative –si is traditionally analyzed as a suffix when it is in one position (after the verb when the verb has no prefixes) and as a prefix when it is in another position Continue reading

Trapezity: a modest proposal for a new typological category

“that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method” (V. Nabokov, Pnin, p. 3)

A success of the functionalist approach to linguistics is to increasingly uncover grammatical categories. To ‘tense’ and ‘mood’ of the ancients accrued ‘aspect’ (Comrie 1976), ‘evidentiality’ (Aikhenvald 2004), ‘mirativity’ (DeLancey 1997), ‘impulsative’ (Cathcart 2011), ‘state’ (Mettouchi and Frajzyngier 2013), ‘speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge’ (Hyslop 2014), ‘allocutivity’ (Antonov 2015), and ‘egophoricity’ (Floyed et al. In press) among many others. The observation that history moves ever quicker holds true with regard to the proliferation of typological categories. It is perplexing that so many of these categories went unrecognized for so long and one may eagerly await the further discovery of categories as vast in number as the grains of sand that would fill all space. Continue reading

Ancient DNA and the Indo-European Question

by Paul Heggarty, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.


1. Towards the End-Game at Last?

An ‘ancient DNA revolution’ is now sweeping through genetics. Suddenly, ancient population migrations can be recovered far more clearly than before.  For linguists, this holds out the prospect of ‘closure’, at last, on the Indo-European question.  And that is quite some prospect, for agreement on the origins of Indo-European has eluded us Continue reading

Obituary – Frank Lichtenberk (1945-2015)

Frank Lichtenberk (Frantisek LichtenberFrank2008k) passed away on Wednesday 29th April 2015 tragically struck by a train near his home in Auckland, New Zealand.

He was an Associate Professor of linguistics in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He had worked there since completing a PhD under the guidance of Andrew Pawley and George Grace at the University of Hawai’i on the Manam language Continue reading

Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading

Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century

This post contains most of the contributions to the Round Table Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century at the Societas Linguistica Europaea 2014 conference at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań. Its aim was to discuss the future of linguistics as a discipline in Europe and the world. The motivation behind this topic was the conviction that as linguists we need to make a strong statement about the essential role of our field in facing global societal challenges, and in bringing together insights from the humanities and the sciences. We must provide rationale and support to the development and enhancement of linguistic studies. Very often the role of linguistic studies is underestimated or misunderstood, and linguists are treated as those who “speak a lot of languages” or, alternatively, as those who “teach languages”. Continue reading

The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

Max Planck diversity linguistics redux: Welcome to “Linguistic and Cultural Evolution” in Jena

With Bernard Comrie’s retirement at the end of May 2015, the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will close (only two staff members with permanent contracts, David Gil and I, will remain, but will join some other department, without special funding for linguistics). Many linguists who appreciated the work that we have been doing over the last 16 years expressed dismay about this, but it’s actually a perfectly normal development. Unlike university departments, which exist independently of particular professors, departments at Max Planck institutes only last as long as their director is active. After that, a new department in a similar area may be founded (funds permitting) by the Max Planck Society, but this is preceded by a lengthy discussion, and preference is often given to new fields that are not sufficiently established in Germany’s research context. Since linguistics is only one of the numerous subfields with relevance to “evolutionary anthropology”, it surprised nobody that the Max Planck Society wants to devote the new department that will occupy our offices after 2015 to a different subfield, human behavioral ecology, a kind of evolutionarily oriented cultural anthropology. Thus, researchers in Leipzig will continue to do research on small, traditional societies, including fieldwork and large-scale databases, but with a focus on cultural and behavioural practices other than language.

But this is not the end of world-wide diversity linguistics within the Max Planck Society. Continue reading

Clock-time expressions in the colloquial language: some suggested universals

Language may have special (typically dial-derived) ways of giving minute-precise clock times. It appears that in some languages, the only way to do this is in a purely additive way, with the hour and the minutes in a sequence that mirrors the digital time format: Thus, Mandarin Chinese has liù diăn wŭ-shí wŭ [six hour fif-ty five] for 6:55.

But many languages are like English, allowing subtractive clock-time expressions such as five to seven, or they allow fraction words such as quarter and half (half past six, quarter to seven). Colloquially, these are often still preferred to digital-clock-derived expressions (e.g. six fifty-five), but with the ever increasing spread of digital clocks, it is probably not overly pessimistic to say that the colloquial clock-time conventions are “endangered subsystems” (Wohlgemuth & Köpl 2005) in all languages, including English. Continue reading

Annotated corpora of small languages as refereed publications: a vision

It has often been said that the job of linguists working on a small language is not complete until they publish three major works on the language: a grammar, a dictionary, and a volume of texts.  This threefold result of extended fieldwork has been described as the “Boasian triad” (e.g. Grinevald 2001, Tsunoda 2006: 245), and ever since Bloomfield’s (1917) “Tagalog texts”, quite a few prominent (and not so prominent) field linguists published text collections (e.g. Heath 1980 on Nunggubuyu, Bollée & Rosalie 1994 on Seychelles Creole, Wichmann 1996 on Texistepec Popoluca, Noonan 1999 on Chantyal, to name but a few). Continue reading

How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading