The innate grammar blueprint: What is it, and why isn’t it a crazy idea?

Many linguists assume that languages are made up of the same basic building blocks – not the same words, of course, but the same phonological features (e.g. Chomsky & Halle 1968), the same morphosyntactic features (e.g. Corbett 2012), the same semantic primitives (e.g. Goddard (ed.) 2008), the same types of rules or constraints, and the same components (e.g. syntax vs. morphology), as well as the same overall architecture (e.g. Jackendoff 1997). Continue reading

How prominence scales help us explain differential object marking: A reply to Ormazabal & Romero (2019)

Scales of referential prominence (animate > inanimate, definite > indefinite, locuphoric (1st/2nd) > aliophoric (3rd), topical > non-topical) are known to play a role in differential object marking generalizations. But what exactly is their role? Do they merely “capture descriptive generalizations”, or is there “explanatory power” in theories that invoke them (such as Aissen 2003; Haspelmath 2021)? Continue reading

Comments on Himmelmann on description and comparison

Himmelmann (2019) (finally available on Lingbuzz in January 2021) criticizes my 2010 and 2018 papers on comparison and description, and it might seem that he is advocating a different approach, but (as is easy to see when comparing his work and my work) we actually agree on what is the best approach for descriptive and comparative linguistics – as do other authors such as Dahl, van der Auwera, Dryer, Bickel, Moravcsik and Lazard (whom Himmelmann also mentions). The real disagreement is with generative grammarians, Continue reading

A conversation with Roberta D’Alessandro on the role of “theory” in grammatical research

The following “conversation” consists of passages from Roberta D’Alessandro’s 2021 commentary (on Lingbuzz) on my 2021 paper on general linguistics (to appear in Theoretical Linguistics), plus some reactions from me. I thought that such an immediate reply to some of the points might be useful, as D’Alessandro’s commentary has proved to be very popular (hundreds of downloads within a few days). Continue reading

Acceptability judgements tell us about social norms, not about internal systems

Since the 1960s, many works on syntax have primarily relied on acceptability judgements, rather than on examples attested in corpora, as was common in earlier times. In Jespersen’s Essentials of English grammar (1933), there were many invented examples, but also quite a few observed corpus attestations (from authors such as Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Carlyle). But over the last five decades, syntacticians have relied much more on experimental methods, which allowed them to make great progress in exploring the incredibly rich patterns of the major languages. (Note that I include acceptability judgements of all kinds under “experiments” here, because they all go beyond pure observation of naturally occurring speech.) Continue reading

Locuphoric person forms and speech act participants

Grammarians often have occasion to distinguish between 1st/2nd person forms on the one hand, and 3rd person forms on the other – that these two behave differently in many languages has been well-known since Benveniste (1947) and Forchheimer (1953). Over the last two decades, the term “SAP” (= speech act participant) has become fairly common in typological circles when reference is needed to 1st/2nd person forms (e.g. Zúñiga 2006; Jacques & Antonov 2014; DeLancey 2018). Continue reading

How typology has solved its “comparability problem”: Some comments on Evans (2020)

Language comparison was long restricted to the question of phylogenetic inheritance (e.g. Bopp 1816; Schleicher 1860), but since authors such as Humboldt (1822) and von der Gabelentz (1891), linguists have also been interested in an ahistorical kind of comparison that is now often called “linguistic typology” – and which has become increasingly prestigious since Greenberg (1963), Chomsky (1981), and the 1997 foundation of the journal Linguistic Typology (LT). Continue reading

On Matthew Spike’s comments on comparative concepts in linguistics

Since the early 20th century, linguists have generally recognized that different languages are different not only historically (with different genealogical origins) and culturally (with different words reflecting their speakers’ cultural needs), but also structurally: The meanings of words cut up reality in different ways, and grammatical categories in different languages do not map straightforwardly onto each other. Phonological systems make use of phonetic possibilities in different ways in different languages. More generally, each language is structurally unique (Haspelmath 2021). Continue reading

Construct marking: Markers on modified nouns to signal the presence of a modifier (some comments on Creissels 2018)

Many languages have a genitive flag in their adpossessive nominals, i.e. a case-marker or adposition on the possessor nominal (e.g. English [Kim’s] money, the roof [of the house]). But alternatively, they may also have a marker on the possessed noun – an antigenitive marker. For example, Ge’ez (an ancient Semitic language of Africa) had an antigenitive suffix -a, as in wald ‘son’, wald-a nəguś [son-ANTG king] ‘the son of the king’. Continue reading

Zeroes and transformations: Good for p-analyses, useless for g-linguistics?

Since the mid-20th century, structural linguists have often made use of two types of abstract devices that were not part of the earlier arsenal (which did of course include rules and paradigms): zero elements (or empty positions), and transformations (or derivations, or operations). Continue reading

Why meaning-form correspondence is not explanatory: Differential coding in locative and adpossessive constructions

Languages are systems that link forms (or shapes) to meanings, so in this sense, linguistic analysis consists in establishing meaning-form correspondences. And of course, such correspondences explain speaker behaviour. What I’m talking about in this post is a more ambitious kind of explanation: Explaining language structures by meaning-form correspondences. One well-known label for kinds of meaning-form correspondence is “iconicity” – so in a way, this blogpost continues the theme of my (2008) paper, which apparently has not lost its relevance. Continue reading

Do modern grammars retain traces of Proto-World?

We know almost nothing about the earliest language(s) of humans, because humans had language(s) over 100,000 years ago, and there are no records or other good methods for learning about those languages. But there is a lot of interesting speculation, and some of this is potentially relevant to understanding similarities among present-day languages. In particular, one might ask whether some similarities or universals are due to inheritance from Proto-World (the language from which all modern languages descend). Continue reading

Some issues with the correlated-evolution method for testing causal hypotheses in comparative linguistics

While comparative grammar research in the 20th century based its universal claims on stratified sampling (e.g. Bell 1978, Bakker 2011), in the 21st century, some authors have emphasized that sampling does not solve the issue of non-independence because all languages probably derive from a common ancestor or ancestral bottleneck (e.g. Maslova 2000; Levinson et al. 2011: 512). They have therefore given preference to the correlated-evolution method (Felsenstein 1985; Mace & Pagel 1994) that is firmly established in biology. Some representatives of this trend are Dunn et al. (2011), Widmer et al. (2017), and Jäger (2019). Continue reading