How coding efficiency explains cross-linguistic asymmetries: A reply to Song (2018: Ch. 7)

Jae Jung Song (1958-2017) published two typology textbooks, one in (2001) and another one earlier this year (which must have been finished just before his death), containing mostly new material. In particular, Chapter 7 of the new book deals with grammatical coding asymmetries and other “typological asymmetries”, as well as “markedness” and explanations in terms of iconicity, economy and frequency. Song makes extensive reference to some of my earlier work (Haspelmath 2006; 2008; Haspelmath et al. 2014), so it may be worth putting together a blogpost with some reactions. Continue reading

Is generative syntax simply a useful descriptive tool?

In the late 20th century, the general view of generative syntax was that it made claims about the innate universal grammar, and that by investigating the principles and parameters of grammar, it did three things simultaneously: (i) explain the possibility of language acquisition despite the poverty of the stimulus, (ii) explain limits on cross-linguistic diversity, and (iii) provide a framework for the elegant description of particular languages (e.g. Baker 2003).

The confidence in the existence of a rich UG and parameters seems to have waned in the 21st century Continue reading

Cross-indexing is the most common type of subject expression in the world’s languages

I recently saw an interesting article that asks about biases in evolutionary biology introduced by the fact that it is studied by humans. In linguistics, there is no shortage either of biases introduced by big languages such as Latin and English, and all linguists are at least aware of this possibility. But are we taking the potential problem seriously enough? Continue reading

Chomsky now rejects universal grammar (and comments on alien languages)

That our colleague Noam A. Chomsky no longer argues for a rich innate universal grammar (UG), containing many dozens (or even hundreds) of substantive features or categories, is old news. In Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002), the authors say that the domain-specific faculty of language (=FLN) comprises only the property of recursion, nothing more. Continue reading

Morphists and adaptationists in 19th century biology, and in modern linguistics: Some intriguing parallels

Recently I’ve been reading up on various aspects of the history of biology, and I noted some similarities between biology and linguistics that I found quite amazing. Maybe historians of science will dispute my interpretations, but I cannot resist the temptation to draw some parallels between what I call “morphists” (scholars who emphasize pure “form”) and adaptationists in both biology and linguistics. Continue reading

The moving parts and fixed parts of our theories: Why functional-adaptive explanations are more testable

I have recently stumbled upon a new metaphor may might help us think more clearly about different approaches in linguistics: the “moving-parts” metaphor that is sometimes used by generative linguistics.

It came up first in a Twitter conversation I had with Peter Jenks, Continue reading

Let’s invest more time in research, and less time in reviewing

Over the last three decades, the amount of time linguists spend on reviewing seems to have increased significantly. Reviews of journal papers seem to be getting longer, we spend more time on grant reviewing, and most strikingly, we spend much more energy on abstract reviewing. Maybe this increase in reviewing is a good thing and I’m just nostalgic of the old times, but I feel that there’s too little discussion of this development. Here I will argue that less reviewing would be better for science, Continue reading

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. Seržant), and there is also a steady stream of MGG papers on the topic Continue reading

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