Are we making progress in understanding differential object marking?

The topic of differential object marking (DOM), or more broadly differential argument marking, continues to be popular in different circles. The journal Linguistics had a special issue in 2014 with 11 papers, there is a recent LangSci volume on the diachrony of differential argument marking (coedited by my Leipzig colleague Ilja A. Serzant, and there is also a steady stream of MGG papers on the topic – e.g. by Laura Kalin (dealing with Senaya Neo-Aramaic), by Theodore Levin (dealing with Palauan), by Coppe van Urk (dealing with Fijian), and by Pilipp Weisser & Laura Kalin on coordination and differential object case-marking.

The term differential object marking was coined by Bossong (1982; 1985), and his findings and ideas were beautifully summarized in his 1991 paper.

Basically, Bossong claims that the explanation for the universal tendencies of differential object marking (favouring overt coding of animate, definite and otherwise referentially prominent object arguments) lies in the interaction of the semantic-syntactic role (“slot”) and the referential prominence of the filler (“the specific semantic nature of the NP”; see Bossong’s §2). This explanation is very similar to the explanations given by authors such as Silverstein (1976), Moravcsik (1978), Comrie (1978), Dixon (1979), which all appeal to the special, unexpected nature of referentially prominent objects in one way or another. In a recent (still unpublished) paper (Haspelmath 2019), I have proposed that this generalization, as well as quite a few other generalizations about split and alternating argument coding, can be explained by frequency-induced predictability, like many other grammatical patterns. This basically follows the explanations advanced in much earlier work since the 1970s (and in fact since the 19th century, cf. Filimonova 2005).

In view of the widespread consensus that the DOM tendencies can be explained functionally, it may seem surprising there is a substantial amount of generative work that simply ignores these explanations (e.g. Torrego 1998; Baker & Vinokurova 2010; Ormazabal & Romero 2013). This seems to be based on the tacit assumption that every fact of every language needs to be explained with reference to UG – which in turn is based on the misunderstanding that description and explanation must be the same thing in linguistics. Bossong (1991) emphasizes that to the extent that the patterns of individual languages reflect universal tendencies, they should be explained in general terms – but he also says:

“First of all, typological comparison has to make clear that the phenomenon under study is not isolated but typologically related to other phenomena in many distant and different languages. Only then does it make sense to look for causal explanations” (Bossong 1991: 164).

So the explanation comes after the comparison and the establishment of universal tendencies, not at the same time as the description. Explanation may be in terms of UG if other (more likely) explanations fail, but there is no reason why language-particular descriptions should be in terms of UG vocabulary. To be sure, we need some kind of UG to acquire a language, but we are of course perfectly capable of creating language-particular grammars on the basis of language-particular categories.

So what do we learn from the recent MGG papers on DOM? I may find time to discuss some of the others later, but here I will only deal with T. Levin (2018). The author argues that DOM in Palauan should be explained as a “last-resort licensing” phenomenon, not as a “morphological” phenomenon (where the different object nominals have the same syntactic features but have different exponents), and not as due to movement either (as in the increasingly popular dependent-case approach). Here is an example (with the accusative preposition er, which only appears on human or singular specific nouns):

A Sally a menguiu er se el hong.
DET Sally TOP read.IPFV ACC that L book
‘Sally is reading that book.’ (Levin’s (3a))

The main argument against the dependent-case approach is that Accusative marking is limited to imperfective constructions in Palauan, while perfective constructions show no object flagging (only object indexing), even though there is no reason to think that the object does not move in perfective clauses. The main argument against the “morphological” account is that it is non-restrictive: It makes it appear completely accidental that DOM is found only in imperfective clauses – whereas this follows from Levin’s analysis, because only imperfective constructions have an extra AspectP that prevents licensing of the object in the usual way. (I did not understand how it is motivated that there is an extra phrase in imperfectives – this seems to be largely theory-internal.)

Here I have three critical questions:

(1) How sure are we that it is NOT an accident that imperfective constructions show special flagging and agreement patterns in a number of languages? As T. Levin notes, progressives (and other imperfectives) often derive from nominalizations, and this of course makes them prone to inherit special argument-marking patterns. Why should this be built into synchronic grammars? And note that perfectives may also arise from special nominalized constructions, as recently emphasized by Anderson (2016) (and briefly discussed earlier on this blog). It is particularly well-known that Russian lost the old Slavic past tense and, as a result, lacks person indexing on its past-tense forms. This is generally seen as an accident, so why couldn’t the Palauan argument-marking split be equally accidental?

(Recall that if this is an accident, then the “boring” morphological account could be right; and in the spirit of Bossong and the other functionalists, one could then attribute the observed regularity to functional-adaptive forces, rather than building oit into the formal analysis.)

(2) T. Levin actually adopts the “morphological” analysis himself – for one idiosyncratic aspect of Palauan DOM. The object-marking preposition is not found on plural object nominals. There is no explanation for this – hence this has to be encoded by “brute force”. But if brute force is available anyway (and not, for example, excluded by learnability considerations which are often invoked by Chomskyans), why not use it everywhere? It seems to me that the main justification for this is that otherwise the paper would be too short and too boring (because the basic generalization, that the Accusative marking is found only in imperfective clauses when the object is human or specific and singular, is very easy, and thus very elegant, to state).

(3) The paper has the highly general title “On the nature of differential object marking”, but in concluding section, T. Levin suddenly retreats to a very modest position:

“Of course, just because the present analysis is correct for Palauan does not mean that every language with a DOM system must be analyzed in similar terms. Additional research is needed to determine if other languages can and should be accorded similar analyses or if DOM is better understood as an umbrella term for a number of phenomena.”

But if there is no universal claim, is this still a paper about the “nature” of DOM (rather than merely a paper about a Palauan pattern that could alternatively be analyzed in much more elegant terms)? Moreover, if there is no universal claim, does the argument against the “morphological” analysis (that it is non-restrictive) still go through? It seems to me that in the concluding section, it turns out that T. Levin’s proposal is not restrictive either.

Thus, I do not see a serious competitor here for Bossong’s explanation of the differential object marking universals in terms of the interaction of the semantic role and the referential prominence of the filler nominal (what I call “role-reference associations”). It seems that T. Levin’s paper (like most other papers by MGG authors) has not heeded Bossong’s advice that explanations of universals must come after the empirical establishment of the universals. These authors typically look at a single language and propose an analysis of it in universal terms, hoping that it will somehow extend to other languages, and that the whole enterprise will eventually converge on a single set of natural kinds.


Is iconicity a better explanation for inalienable adpossessive marking after all?

Many languages have different adpossessive (= adnominal possessive) constructions for inalienable possessed nouns (= body-part or kinship nouns) and all other nouns. For example, Maltese has id Pietru ‘Pietru’s hand’ with no marker when a body-part is possessed, but il-ktieb ta’ Pietru [the-book of Pietru] with a possessive preposition when an alienable noun is possessed. Continue reading

Syntax and didactics (A reply by Koeneman and Zeijlstra)

The following text is a reply by Olaf Koeneman & Hedde Zeijlstra to Martin Haspelmath’s earlier post (Confused by syntax)

We thank Martin Haspelmath for allowing us to reply to his review of our book. We have divided our reply in two parts. In the first part, we make explicit what our choices have been in writing this textbook and why we made them. We believe that quite a few of Martin’s criticisms relate to these, often didactic, choices. In the second part we reply to some of the more detailed comments Continue reading

Confused by syntax: Some notes on Koeneman & Zeijlstra (2017)

(See also a reply to this critical review by the authors: “Syntax and didactics“)

A new authoritative textbook on Chomskyan syntax

Papers in the framework of current mainstream generative grammar (MGG) are often difficult, or even impenetrable, to read, even when the reader is well-versed in syntax and in other models of generative syntax. They are mostly written for the community of practitioners, who naturally do not see a need to motivate their choices. I was thus happy to see a new textbook (“Introducing syntax”, Koeneman & Zeijlstra 2017), published by an authoritative publisher, and approved by Noam Chomsky himself Continue reading

Does less restrictiveness mean progress in grammatical theory?

One prominent way of expressing the goal of what is often called “grammatical theory” (or “linguistic theory”) is to say that it aims to establish an innate architecture and a set of features and categories that are rich enough to account for everything we find in the world’s languages, but restrictive enough to explain the gaps in what we see and to explain why we can acquire languages despite the poverty of the stimulus. I always found the first goal absolutely compelling Continue reading

What’s the point of the negative reviews?

Scientists don’t get a lot of positive feedback for their work: Often it’s just two or three questions after a conference talk, by friendly colleagues who understood the talk only partly – and all this after months of work that went into this talk. And reviewers of journal papers are often downright negative – getting one’s journal-paper reviews back can be a depressing experience. Continue reading

More on universals of case-marking from the perspective of nanosyntax: Van Baal & Don (2018)

In a recent blogpost, I promised that I’d pay more attention to the nanosyntactic approach if the authors look at more representative samples of the world’s languages, and it turns out that this is not difficult, because the fair open-access journal Glossa regularly publishes papers in this vein. A recent paper is van Baal & Don (2018), on universals of possessive pronouns, based on a sample of 50 languages. Continue reading

Asymmetric coding in grammars and frequency-induced predictability

Over the last decade, I have often argued that grammatical coding patterns can be explained by frequency of use. In this blogpost, I provide a short summary of the claims for those who are not familiar with the argument.

What I’m claiming is not that I can explain language-particular patterns – the claim is entirely at the level of general linguistics, i.e. I am proposing an explanation of cross-linguistic tendencies. The tendencies that can be explained in this way are coding asymmetries, i.e. pairs of grammatical meanings that are in paradigmatic opposition and where one of the members shows a strong cross-linguistic tendency to be expressed by a longer form (which often means that the shorter form is zero). Continue reading

Coexpression patterns of complementizers, nanosyntax, and productivity

Since the 1980s, typologists have often summarized coexpression patterns (or “polysemy patterns”, or “syncretism patterns”) by semantic maps, as illustrated here for case expression (Narrog & Ito 2007: 282):

(For general introductions to semantic maps, see Haspelmath 2003; Georgakopoulos & Polis 2018). The claims about possible coexpression pattern that a semantic map makes Continue reading

Facing the challenge of general linguistics when nature doesn’t help us

The following is a summary of an invited talk I presented at NoSLiP 2018 in Oslo in February 2018. I used the subtitle “Toward an IPA of morphosyntax”, echoing some remarks of an earlier post, though this is still a fairly distant goal. But in this talk I say more to motivate the need for it.

1. The general linguistics problem: Human Language is unobservable

In the 19th century, most linguists were particular linguists Continue reading

An interview with Dan Slobin on diversity of categories, acquisition, and sign language

Martin Haspelmath: Dan, you have shown an interest in my distinction between comparative concepts and descriptive categories, and you told me that you recently read my new paper “How comparative concepts and linguistic categories are different”. Can you say what you liked about it and how it relates to your own work?

Dan Slobin: I read your paper with great enthusiasm and pleasure. It makes your familiar argument precise, elegant, and, in my opinion, strongly convincing. Continue reading

A plea for pronounceable language names

Suppose you hear that a colleague is working on a language called “@t~q^M#%”. What is your reaction? What’s wrong with the language name “@t~q^M#%”? It’s perfectly unique, it consists only of ASCII characters so is eminently typable, and it has a certain beauty. But of course it lacks pronounceability, so is it good as a name? In general, we expect a language to have a name that we can use in speaking about the language, not only in writing. Continue reading

Why should we bother about terminology in linguistics?

Those who know me better will be aware that I keep insisting on careful use of terminology in linguistics, especially in grammar (my main area of research), but also in other areas – for example, I often point out that it’s very problematic to use the term borrowing only for cases of copying (of words and other features from a donor language) that were NOT due to imperfect learning of a second language (i.e. substrate effects). The reason is that we need a general term for all kinds of copying, because in many or most cases we don’t know the circumstances under which the copying took place. Continue reading