On Bošković on generative typology vs. Greenbergian typology: Where is the rapprochement?

In a new position paper, Željko Bošković (2022) compares Greenberg-style typology with Baker-style typology and claims that the two approaches are not as different as it might appear. He suggests that a rapprochement is possible, and even that “typology is setting grounds for a potential rapprochement of the functional and the formal approach to language more generally” (p. 1). But are there really reasons to be optimistic? Here I offer a more cautious assessment, though I am of course happy whenever someone writes a paper comparing approaches and enters into some kind of dialogue.

Bošković’s paper has the title “Formalism and, not vs, Functionalism”, and as it is very long and detailed, I will focus on the following eight claims made by Bošković. I will refer to the two approaches as Greenbergian, after Greenberg (1963), and Bakerian, after Baker (2001); Mark Baker is of course taking a generative/Chomskyan perspective, but I take his work as exemplary of generative typology. (Oddly, Bošković calls the two approaches “traditional typology” (TT) and “generative typology” (GT), as if generative grammar were itself not a decades-long tradition; and in the paper’s title, he seems to equate them with “functionalism” and “formalism”, without further explanation.)

Eight selected points of the paper:

(1) The differences between the two approaches (or “camps”, as he says) are largely due to wrong perceptions of radical slogans, and to misunderstandings, not so much to actual incompatibilities.

(2) The idea that each language should be described in its own terms (categorial particularism, emphasized by Haspelmath 2010) is not taken too literally by most of the Greenbergians, and the Bakerians need to take language-particular differences very seriously, too.

(3) Greenbergians have reacted negatively to suggestions (as in Cinque 1999) that clause structure and syntactic structure more generally is universal across languages, but these claims are untenable anyway – in particular, the NP vs. DP parameter (e.g. Bošković 2008) cannot be stated in a different way.

(4) Functionalists emphasize semantics and pragmatics, and formalists’ focus on syntax, does not mean that there is any incompatibility – the two types of explanations should be combined.

(5) Greenbergians focus on what is possible, while Bakerians are interested in where the gaps are – what kinds of language types are unattested and impossible.

(6) Haspelmath’s (2004) and Stegovec’s (2020) proposals for ditransitive person restrictions (“PCC”) converge to some extent, and one needs them both – in fact, Haspelmath talks about “grammaticalization” but does not say what it amounts to, while Stegovec is explicit about this.

(7) Occam’s razor favours functional explanations. More generally, “Occam’s razor disfavours, and requires re-evaluation of, strictly formal mechanisms” (p. 21).

(8) Both Greenbergians and Bakerians believe that there are general properties of language, and it does not matter much whether one calls them “UG” or not (p. 30).

The hope that we may eventually see a rapprochement is old – I remember hearing a talk by Bernard Comrie in 1987 (at the International Congress of Linguists in Berlin) where he noted an increasing interest in typology among generative grammarians (after his pessimistic assessment in his 1981 book). When Hawkins (1994) was published in Linguistic Inquiry, I hoped that generative linguistics would become more open, and again when Optimality Theory (with its clearly functionalist bent) was becoming popular (cf. my 1999 paper). So is typology “rapidly gaining traction within the generative camp”, as Bošković says (p. 34)? I am not sure – the examples he gives are mostly from two decades ago, or from work by his colleagues and students at the University of Connecticut (such as Roy Messick, Jungmin Kang, Miloje Despić, Adrian Stegovec, Hsu-Te Cheng, Marcin Dadan, Aida Talić, Neda Todorović).

It seems to me that it is far more typical for generative syntacticians to study a particular phenomenon in a particular language, and to draw far-reaching conclusions from this – which of course makes sense if one assumes a rich innate blueprint for grammar (but not otherwise, cf. Haspelmath 2021b). In fact, Bošković himself notes that “many practitioners of [generative grammar] use [detailed investigations of individual languages] (generally … of an understudied language in this case) to argue against proposed crosslinguistic generalizations”. Of course, it is easier to study one language and find a weird phenomenon that does not fit into the received wisdom (and then develop some ideas about what to say about it) than to carry out a large-scale cross-linguistic investigation. So this actual resesarch practice is not surprising, but does it amount to “typology”?

Now clearly, Greenbergian typology is not wildly popular either, so maybe typological work of both styles will continue to exist on the margins of the field. But are the differences primarily due to misunderstandings (B’s point (1))? I do not think so, and I fear that Bošković has overlooked the crucial stumbling block: Bakerians simply assume that all languages are made up of the same categories, and they find it normal to work with entities like “[ForceP [TopP [FocP [IP ]]]]”, while Greenbergians do not see any value in them because different languages can have different categories (including different categories of information structure, cf. Matić & Wedgwood 2013).

Bošković treats the need for each language to be described in its own terms as a “mantra” (his point (2)), and he says that it is too radical, but it simply follows from the fact that we do not know what the innate categories of the grammar blueprint are (one need not reject this idea, but it remains speculative at the moment). His text betrays a crucial misunderstanding:

“[Haspelmath] treats them [i.e. the comparative concepts] as artificial linguistic constructs and not real (in fact not part of the grammar of individual languages), but there is really no deep reason (and, more importantly, nothing in the general TT worldview) why they should not be considered real.” (p. 3)

The deep reason is that language-particular categories are identified by language-particular criteria, while comparative concepts are defined in the same way for all languages (Haspelmath 2018). This means that it is logically impossible to identify and define them in the same way. There are of course many similarities, and language-particular categories in different languages often have the same name, for good mnemonic reasons (Haspelmath 2020a). For example, English the is called Definite Article (though it is defined as the segment sequence [ðə/ði]), and French le/la/les (defined as three related segment sequences) is also called Definite Article – they exhibit striking similarities in their use, but also clear differences. They could not be the same category (because they belong to different languages), but they can be compared using a comparative concept “definite article” (e.g. Becker 2021). Bošković suggests that all language-particular categories can be composed of a set of universal categories, e.g. category X in French could be composed of Y+Z, while category U in English could be composed of Y+W – they would still both represent Y, which would be simultaneously a comparative concept and a universal category. While this is possible in principle (and David Adger has made similar suggestions, cf. this blogpost), it does not (yet?) work in practice. We simply do not know (yet?) what these atomic features (Y, Z, W) might be. For phonology, there are certain concrete proposals for the “natural kinds” of phoneme inventories, but for morphosyntax, we are groping in the dark.

For this reason, we use all kinds of different comparative concepts (including token-based comparative concepts such as parallel-text passages). Bošković seems to think that each category has one comparative concept corresponding to it (“a distinction between a language particular descriptive category (X) and its crosslinguistically applicable comparative concept (Y)”, p. 3), but this is wrong – the set of possible comparative concepts is completely open-ended (the examples in my 2010 paper may have given a wrong impression; I focused on category-like comparative concepts in that paper because it is these comparative concepts that are most often confused with language-particular categories).

Bošković is right that not all linguists working in the Greenbergian tradition have officially embraced the comparative-concept framework (initiated by Dryer 1997; Croft 2001; Haspelmath 2010), and some have been quite critical (e.g. LaPolla 2017, see this blogpost; and Himmelmann 2021, see this blogpost). However, it is easy to see that descriptions by authors such as Dryer (e.g. his grammar of Kara-Lemakot, 2013), LaPolla (e.g. his grammar of Qiang, LaPolla & Huang 2003), and Himmelmann (e.g. his grammar of Toratán, Himmelmann & Wolff 1998) are very similar and do not make any reference to generative-style notation of the type seen above (“[ForceP [TopP [FocP [IP ]]]]”). So we may not all have the same philosophical understanding of what we are doing (see also my discussion of Nick Evans’s puzzling 2020 comments concerning language comparison), but what we are doing is very similar, and rather different from what generative linguists ar doing.

The idea that each language has its own categories is of course very old, and not merely an overreaction to some extreme claims by some generativists (as Bošković suspects). For example, Whitney (1875) said the following (cited from Joseph 2022: 24):

“Every single language has thus its own peculiar framework of established distinctions, its shapes and forms of thought, into which, for the human being who learns that language as his ‘mother-tongue’, is cast the content and product of the mind, his store of impressions, however acquired, his experience and knowledge of the world. This is what is sometimes called the ‘inner form’ of language – the shape and cast of thought, as fitted to a certain body of expressions.” (Whitney 1875: 21-22)

In the 19th century, linguists influenced by the Humboldian tradition were perhaps particularly intrigued by the different semantic categories of languages, but it has long been clear that morphosyntactic categories are cross-linguistically variable, too. In contrast to what Bošković implies (cf. his point (3)), Dryer’s (1997) paper (which influenced both Croft and Haspelmath) did not arise in reaction to “universal sentence structure” proposals (à la Cinque), but rather in reaction to the “opportunistic” (Croft 2009) choice of diagnostics for syntactic functions such as “subject” and “object” (Dryer’s paper is foreshadowed in Dryer 1986, which discusses types of object relations, and criteria for identifying them). And this is the key issue: Can one use different criteria in different languages to identify the same phenomenon? In generative grammar, this is generally accepted (leading to a lot of “moving pieces”), but Greenbergian typologists are fully aware of the need to identify comparable entities in uniform ways. Bošković does not mention the problem of opportunistic choice of criteria (called “diagnostic fishing” in Haspelmath 2018; see also Tallman 2021) at all, so maybe he is simply not aware that it is a deep problem.

Regarding his point (4), there is really no disagreement that syntax, semantics and pragmatics are all important, and that none can be reduced to the other. Maybe some authors who work only on one language still hope that some of the core syntactic phenomena really have a semantic-pragmatic explanation, but every typologist knows that nonsemantic regularities are found all over the place in language systems – languages wouldn’t be so different if semantics-pragmatics ruled supreme. But the question is which aspects of the syntax of a language are historically accidental, and which accents are amenable to an explanation – and if so, whether the explanation is of the functional-adaptive kind or of a biocognitive-representational kind (making reference to innate building blocks which can represent some kinds of generalizations but not others; Haspelmath 2019). Assuming a rich set of innate biocognitive tools (commonly called “UG”) makes a big difference here, and it is odd that Bošković should downplay this aspect by almost equating “UG” with “general properties of language” (his point (8); p. 30), because two pages later he treats UG “as a property of FL (= the domain-specific faculty of language)”. (Unfortunately, the terms “language faculty” and “universal grammar” have been used in confusingly diverse ways; see Haspelmath 2020b for some discussion of these terms.)

Bošković’s point (5) about typological gaps is odd, because the notion of an implicational universal and a corresponding tetrachoric table (with one gap in a 2-by-2 table) is a central part of typological theory (Croft 2003: Chapter 3). Bošković is right that when it comes to the description of particular languages, the systematic identification of unacceptable patterns has been an important contribution of generative grammarians (probably the most important contribution of Chomsky to linguistics; see my recent Inference text about this). But in typology, finding gaps is equally characteristic of both approaches.

Finally, what is the relationship between functional explanation, “grammaticalization” and syntactic description (B’s points (6) and (7))? Bošković is right that when I attributed the ditransitive person-role restrictions to “grammaticalization” (Haspelmath 2004), this was a bit vague. He makes the following interesting comment:

“Functionalists often question whether a typological generalization requires a formal analysis of the data, but they also often use the term ‘grammaticalization’ in a way that in fact indicates such a need. More generally, what the functionalists often mean by grammaticalization (and what Haspelmath also means by it in his approach to person restrictions), is that X started out as a tendency due to functional/pragmatic reasons, but has “rigidified” into a hard rule, without really explaining the rigidification. This is a place where a formalist can step in to provide an actual account of the rigidification, including the details of exactly what X has hardened into, and why it has hardened into a particular format rather than a different logically possible format.” (Bošković 2022: 20)

It is of course true that the very claim of grammaticalization (of a discourse tendency) entails the need for grammatical description – but what kind of grammatical description? Many would say that it does not really matter, as long as the description is explicit and clear (Dryer 2006). It is true that we do not really know why this “rigidification” happens, but how would generative grammar contribute to understanding it? Stegovec (2020) provides a generative account, but it is highly technical, involving derivations such as the following:

Stegovec does not take the discourse tendencies into account at all and does not even mention them (unlike Anagnostopoulou 2017; see this conversation). Stegovec’s paper is quite typical of work in generative grammar, and it is not really compatible with Bošković’s point (7) about favouring functional explanations. If there is a functional explanation for the tendencies of person-role restrictions (see also Haspelmath 2021a for a much bigger picture), then we would not need the kind of complex machinery that Stegovec employs. It seems, however, that Stegovec’s paper completely ignores the possibility of a functional explanation for the general tendencies, because it is specifically interested in developing this formal machinery. Thus, it is not a good example of rapprochement – or at least it is very difficult to see because the paper is so hard to understand.

I agree with Bošković that there are too many ideological statements (“slogans”), both negative and positive, and it is certainly not healthy that linguists are working in different “camps” or “traditions” – ideally, we would develop theories and descriptions that are broadly accessible and that can be appreciated by a wide range of colleagues. But this is simply not happening at the moment, and many linguists are comfortable with finding a place in a corner of the discipline, without worrying much how it all fits together. Maybe we shouldn’t be expecting too much – understanding language structures is simply very hard.


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3 thoughts on “On Bošković on generative typology vs. Greenbergian typology: Where is the rapprochement?

  1. Well said, Martin! One point from your text:

    “we do not know what the innate categories of the grammar blueprint are (one need not reject this idea, but it remains speculative at the moment).”

    Well, generativists have hypothesized about this for sixty years now. Today we have working genetics and brain imaging, and the results have been in for decades: nada. Chomsky can’t live forever, and so the generativists will have to look for a new reason for their funding. How about combining GG with typology? Sounds like an idea.

  2. I appreciate Martin’s blog post, and taking my paper in the spirit in which it was written. Just a couple of clarification points before getting to the main point. The issue of categories, notions like subject, they are not a big deal on the generative side (in its minimalist incarnation) to start with; they are not primitives of the theory, hence questioning their universality would not be taken to be particularly relevant on the generative side, this is why I attempted to recast the relevant discussion in different terms. Regarding categories, in the Government and Binding theory, the structure was built top down. E.g. you would first build a DP then insert a particular lexical item under it. The notion of category as used in works by Haspelmath was important there. In the current bare-phrase structure view (see e.g. Chomsky 1995), you start with the lexical item, and then this lexical item projects to a phrase (so you have the lexical item before the phrase it projects). The lexical item is a set of features, say X, Y, Z…. These features are projected into the phrase during structure building. So one can then have differences between the articles in French and English, which will be reflected in the feature composition of the relevant elements; as a result of those differences the phrases they project will be slightly different. Yes, DP is still used for both cases, but this is for ease of exposition. Because of these differences in the lexical properties, the phrases projected by those slightly different articles can end up behaving differently (for relevant recent discussion from a somewhat different perspective, see Oda 2022). Regarding the decomposition of what is referred to as categories in Haspelmath’s work, in the blog post Martin says “We simply do not know (yet?) what these atomic features might be”, but not knowing does not mean that those things do not exist. Just thinking about what we did not know in science more generally 200 years ago… Regarding drawing a definitive conclusion that they exist or not, we are simply not in a position to draw a definitive conclusion either way right now. But the working hypothesis, given Occam’s razor, should be that there are as few of them as possible, which means that they would be “re-used” in different languages (essentially universal, a similar point was made by David Pesetsky recently on Martin Haspelmath’s facebook page). Taking the opposite as the working hypothesis would essentially be assuming an anti-Occam razor stance as a working hypothesis/methodology in general. At any rate, we are simply at the point of testing the (Occam-razor conforming) working hypothesis.

    Regarding left periphery, which is connected to information structure, this is precisely the part of sentence structure where languages do vary quite a bit, and most of my examples of crosslinguistic variation in sentence structure (and non-universality of sentence structure) in fact come from left periphery.

    As for me giving Haspelmath’s and Stegovec’s work on person restrictions as a case of potential rapprochement between the two traditions, neither of these works (Haspelmath 2004 and Stegovec 2020) on its own is a case of rapprochement, the first one is a functionalist work, and the second one is a formalist work. In the paper I was going beyond what was done in those works themselves (though there is much more in Stegovec’s UConn dissertation than Stegovec 2020), pointing out that there can be a place for both of these perspectives in a comprehensive account of the phenomenon in question (also pointing out a number of similarities between them). Importantly, this was done as an illustration of a more general point about grammaticalization, cited in Martin’s blog post. It may be worth adding here the continuation of what is quoted (from p. 20 of Bošković 2022, given in brackets below) in Martin’s blog post:
    “[Functionalists often question whether a typological generalization requires a formal analysis of the data, but they also often use the term ‘grammaticalization’ in a way that in fact indicates such a need. More generally, what the functionalists often mean by grammaticalization (and what Haspelmath also means by it in his approach to person restrictions), is that X started out as a tendency due to functional/pragmatic reasons, but has “rigidified” into a hard rule, without really explaining the rigidification. This is a place where a formalist can step in to provide an actual account of the rigidification, including the details of exactly what X has hardened into, and why it has hardened into a particular format rather than a different logically possible format.] This would lead to a productive and complementary investigation of a phenomenon from both perspectives that would in turn provide a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. Paying closer attention to what is meant by something being “grammaticalized” can then not only be progress toward rapprochement between the two perspectives, but also make the complementarity of the two perspectives more obvious.”
    Another relevant case in this respect I mentioned in the paper was the requirement that subjects in Chinese be interpreted as specific/definite. English does not have this requirement, but specific/definite subjects are much more frequent than indefinite ones in English. This could then be another case of grammaticalization (in Chinese) of a broader cognitive tendency that English reflects (there is interesting relevant discussion in Hawkins 2010).

    At any rate, I do not want to emphasize disagreements, it would go against the spirit of what I was trying to do in the paper, which is setting grounds for a rapprochement between the two traditions. Rapprochement, however, does not mean one side admitting that they are completely wrong, stopping doing what they are doing, and starting doing what the other side is doing. This is certainly not going to happen (and it should not happen). The main point of my paper is that what the two camps do is largely complementary. Since linguistic phenomena do not come with labels regarding whether a formal or a functional explanation is more appropriate for them there should still be some competition (healthy competition of the kind we are all used to), but no (to quote myself, p. 34) “antagonism that comes from opposing worldviews regarding the subject matter that would deny to the opposing camp the scientific right to exist”.
    I may be rare among more senior linguists to sincerely believe that rapprochement is possible, and that it should happen, but the reasons for this are non-linguistic. There is just too much baggage from the long-lasting cold war on both sides. There is nothing linguistic about it (which is what I was trying to show), it’s simply human nature. The East-West cold war was over, but many politicians kept behaving as if it was not, almost longing for the good old times with fixed demarcation lines between good and bad guys. And they actually managed to bring it all back. I have to admit that my target audience with this paper was the younger generations, on both sides. They are more open, they carry less non-linguistic baggage, it is on them to actually achieve the rapprochement. We are making it more difficult for them with our cold war attitudes, and by making it impossible for them to get a more comprehensive formal education. One of the things I said in the paper (p. 34) is the following: “We should be moving from the current, “our” vs “their” department situation to a predominantly “our” vs predominantly “their” department situation. The field (and the training the students get) will be better for it. The students need to be exposed to both views, at least to be familiar with them (so that they can recognize when a formal/functional issue arises, i.e. when a particular investigation starts crossing into the other domain), just like a syntactician needs to be exposed to semantics, and a semanticist needs to be exposed to syntax. In all these cases we are dealing with complementarity, not mutually incompatible worldviews. The latter would rightly require complete department separations (essentially to avoid a warzone). We are still in the separation mode, but we shouldn’t be.” So let me end with a call to the younger linguists on BOTH sides: do not listen to the senior figures (on BOTH sides) who are telling you that the other side is completely wrong (generally based on cartoonish versions of the other side), which is often intended to prevent you from getting exposure to the other side in the attempt to truly understand what they are doing. Do exactly that. The future of the field is in your hands.
    Bošković, Željko. 2022. Formalism and, not vs, functionalism. Lingbuzz.
    Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: MIT Press.
    Haspelmath, Martin. 2004. Explaining the ditransitive person-role constraint: A usage-based approach. Constructions 2, 49.
    Hawkins, John. 2010. Processing efficiency and complexity in typological patterns. In Oxford handbook of linguistic typology, ed. by Jae Jung Song, 1-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Oda, Hiromune. 2022. The NP/DP-language Distinction as a Scale and Parameters in Minimalism. Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut.
    Stegovec, Adrian. 2019. Person on the Edge: Lessons from Crosslinguistic Variation in Syntactic Person Restrictions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut.
    Stegovec, Adrian. 2020. Taking case out of the Person-Case Constraint. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 38: 261–311.

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