After 40 years in the field, looking back

In early October 1982, exactly forty years ago, I formally entered the field of academic linguistics, by enrolling at the University of Vienna in the programmes of Indo-European linguistics and general linguistics. A lot of things have happened in linguistics (and in my career) since, so in this blogpost, my reflections will be limited to a very selective and very personal perspective.

While recent years have seen more and more applications of quantitative methods (as was already clear in 2014, when I gave a short SLE Roundtable presentation on the future of the field), my own work has mostly focused on contributing to comparative grammar and on trying to understand various kinds of formal-linguistics approaches. Quite amazingly, my first (“undergraduate”) year in Vienna introduced me to two scholars who turned out to have a pivotal influence on me: Edith A. Moravcsik (of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee), a comparative grammarian, and Igor A. Mel’čuk (of the University of Montreal), a formal syntactician and semanticist. Both were visiting professors at the University of Vienna who taught for one semester each (Edith in the winter semester 1982/83, and Igor in the summer semester 1983), and were not regular faculty. It was quite amazing that the department of linguistics had the funds to invite them to teach in person for a whole semester, and I profited enormously from this unique opportunity.

The head of the Vienna department was Wolfgang Ullrich Dressler, a phonologist and morphologist who had actually started out as an Indo-Europeanist (his first book in 1968 was on pluractionality in Indo-European). Since the 1970s, his work increasingly focused on various aspects of phonology, where he advocated a functionalist approach called “Natural Phonology”. Beginning in the 1980s, he increasingly moved to morphology and founded a related approach called “Natural Morphology” (Dressler 1990 is a summary of “naturalness” approaches more generally). I found these approaches intriguing, and I struggled to understand how they differed from the American mainstream theories of Kiparsky and colleagues that were popular in the 1980s (typically by the name “Lexical Phonology and Morphology”, e.g. Kiparsky 1982). One great thing about Dressler and his department in Vienna was that there was a lot going on, in terms of guest lectures, conferences, and projects, so I felt very much attracted to this kind of internationally minded linguistics. In most places in my home country, West Germany, linguistics was quite provincial by comparison, so it was a good choice to head for the relatively exotic, though still German-speaking, capital of Austria.

Haspelmath and Dressler (2022 in Budapest)

One of the special features of Vienna was its orientation toward central and eastern Europe, which was facilitated by Austria’s political neutrality during the Cold War period. Dressler was good friends with the Hungarian linguist Ferenc Kiefer (1931-2021), and together, they founded the International Morphology Meeting (IMM), which took place alternately in Austria (often but not always Vienna) and Hungary (often but not always Budapest). I had attended some of these meetings in the 1990s, but I switched from morphology to worldwide typology after my morphology textbook appeared in 2002. Now in this year, after a gap of two decades, I attended an IMM in Budapest again, and it was moving to watch Dressler giving the introductory talk remembering his good Hungarian friend “Feri” who died last year. I had actually attended a class taught by Kiefer, who was visiting professor in Vienna in 1984/85, and who introduced us to GPSG (Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar, HPSG’s forerunner), using a preprint of a book that appeared shortly thereafter. It was amazing to see an eastern European scholar (who lived “behind the iron curtain”) teaching us about the most advanced formal syntax approach (emanating from the UK and the US; Kiefer was simply very well connected).

Dressler had very diverse interests, ranging from poetic language through discourse linguistics and language acquisition, but I stuck to comparative grammar and formal models of grammar. (I had actually started with Indo-European linguistics, but not much was going on in this field, and I found general linguistics much more exciting – especially when I realized that some typologists were studying general laws of change such as those of grammaticalization.) But what was the relation between these two? How did “typology” relate to “generative grammar”?

In Edith Moravcsik’s class on language universals (in my very first semester), I learned about Greenberg’s ground-breaking work on worldwide patterns of syntax and morphology, but this work did not seem to have any relation to formal syntax. And in Hubert Haider’s classes on formal syntax (as well as in the GPSG class), I learned about English (and German) syntax, but there was no connection to the universals found by Greenberg and his associates. Generative grammar seemed sophisticated, but at the same time quite parochial, and as I came from a comparative field (Indo-European linguistics), I found the generality of Greenbergian comparativism much more compelling. But later in the 1980s, generative syntacticians started making cross-linguistic claims, such as claims about the properties of null-subject languages (put to the test in Gilligan’s famous 1987 dissertation), so formal syntax began to be more and more interesting. After we published the World atlas of language strutures in 2005, I was even invited to a generative syntax conference in Newcastle, where I compared the generative and the Greenbergian approaches to syntactic generalizations (Haspelmath 2008; see also 2014).

Igor Mel’čuk’s classes on syntax and semantics in his “Meaning-Text Model” provided a fascinating alternative perspective compared to the American mainstream approaches, and they made a lot more sense to me. One reason was that he was not only talking about English, but also about languages like Russian, Hungarian, and even the Caucasian language Lezgian. And in fact, Mel’čuk’s work on Lezgian provided the impetus for my work on Lezgian between 1988 and 1993; I talked about this in my 2019 paper based on a Moscow TMP presentation. But another reason was that his approach gave equal weight to syntax and semantics, much like in Jackendoff’s (e.g. 2002) Parallel Architecture. I had always been interested in functional(-semantic) explanations of syntactic patterns (just as Dressler was interested in functional explanations of phonological and morphological patterns), and ignoring semantics when studying syntax (as was usual in generative practice at the time) seemed an odd choice to me. It was also through Mel’čuk’s classes that I first heard about Anna Wierzbicka’s work on semantic primes (Igor and Anna had met in Moscow in the 1960s), and I was fascinated to see later in the 1990s that Wierzbicka became more and more interested in broadly cross-linguistic questions (e.g. Goddard & Wierzbicka 2014). Igor had a fascinating charismatic personality, and I heard that he was considered a leading figure in Soviet linguistics until 1977, when he lost his job and emigrated to Canada. Attending his lectures was an amazing experience, and if world history had been different (if the Soviet Union had been as open and wealthy as the United States), he might well have been considered THE leading figure in his field. (Igor will turn 90 this month; amazingly, he wrote book after book and paper after paper over the last few decades; see, e.g., Mel’čuk & Milićević 2020.)

In the 1990s and the following decade, two interesting developments happened: On the one hand, the prestige of primary-data work (“fieldwork”) on small languages rose dramatically, as we became increasingly aware that many smaller languages are being used less and less (“are dying”). On the other hand, work on bigger languages was increasingly corpus-based (and based on quantitative experiments), and thus based on actual language use. Thus, I observed an interesting inversion: While linguists working on smaller languages had not been doing generative grammar in earlier times (because it seemed impractical, and English-centred) but were inspired by typological work (by post-Greenbergian authors such as Comrie, Dixon and Givón), generative syntax became increasingly prominent in work on non-European languages, also far beyond the bigger East Asian languages. It seems that nowadays, most North American linguists working on the grammar of African or Austronesian languages or languages of the Americas adopt generative methodological assumptions. (This is much less so in Europe and Australia.) By contrast, linguists working on the bigger languages often make different assumptions and situate their work in “construction grammar” or “cognitive linguistics” approaches. When Evans & Levinson (2009) claimed that generative grammar was not sufficiently informed by the study of diverse languages from around the world, they were rightly criticized for overlooking a lot of more recent generative work that was doing precisely this: studying small (and often disappearing) languages from other continents. (But it also seems to be the case that less and less of this work is making ambitious typological claims, of the sort that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, when generative parameter approaches were flourishing; see Baker 2008.)

In a brilliant and highly readable 2021 essay (in a collection of papers on Chomsky), Mark Baker recently describes the role of cross-linguistic diversity in generative grammar (GG) over the years and decades. Baker notes that Chomsky was not really interested in worldwide diversity for the first 25 years, but he argues that nevertheless, Chomsky’s way of doing syntax contributed significantly to our knowledge of the patterns of the world’s languages by encouraging the study of a much richer set of phenomena:

“The point of Chomsky concentrating on English for a time was to enormously raise the bar of what counts as a description of the syntax of a natural language. Only once we begin to have a true appreciation of the splendid complexity of the grammar of particular languages can we grasp the scope and significance of the similarities and differences among these languages.” (Baker 2021: 169)

It is certainly true that there are many syntactic phenomena that had not been prominent in descriptive grammars and in (Greenberg-style) typology before they were highlighted by generative grammarians, including relative clauses (where Keenan & Comrie 1977 built on GG), the relation between weak pronouns and agreement (where Siewierska 2004 built on GG’s pro-drop discussion), and indefinite pronouns (where my 1997 book built on generative-inspired work such as Dahl 1970). Baker even goes on to claim that generative grammar has made important contributions to descriptive linguistics:

“Chomskyan theoretical linguistics has often been contrasted with “descriptive linguistics,” and not entirely without reason. But … [one can say that] the great contribution of Chomskyan linguistics has been to descriptive linguistics, as it has discovered a plethora of genuinely new facts about languages and language. I for one have been inspired by the kinds of discoveries that were being made in English and the Romance languages, and wanted to use a similar precision, sophistication, and attention to detail to make discoveries about Mohawk, Edo, Sakha, and Shipibo.” (Baker 2021: 170)

This is quite in line with what I said in a recent commentary on Chomsky’s contribution to syntax (in the magazine Inference), where I noted that “While Chomsky emphasized deep questions, the progress that has actually been made concerns breadth of description rather than depth of understanding.” After I wrote this commentary, I came across Baker’s essay and was happy to see Baker agree (to some extent). Of course, the general goals of comparative grammar are (i) to find common features shared by languages (“universals”) and (ii) to explain these, but both of these goals are very ambitious, and few of the ambitious proposals of the 1980s and 1990s have survived (in my 2008 paper, I noted that Greenbergian typologists’ findings have also been less successful than has sometimes been trumpeted). My proposal in the Inference commentary was that the main contribution of GG was the recognition that syntactic paradigms must be treated like inflectional paradigms, and must be completed: We want to know how a syntactic construction behaves with respect to all its intersecting constructions, and unless we know this, we have not described the language fully. Syntactic paradigms are richer than inflectional paradigms because there are more dimensions, so studying the full breadth of a language’s constructions is a serious effort. (Baker calls this “precision, sophistication, and attention to detail”, but I would simply say “complete syntactic paradigms”; importantly, this does not have to go hand in hand with “depth of understanding”.)

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was some hope that generative and typological approaches might converge (and some authors such as Bošković 2022 are still nourishing such hopes; see my commentary on his recent paper), but what we seem to be observing is that both traditions continue and are getting more and more technical: The technical aspects of generative syntax are less and less transparent for outsiders, and the quantitative analyses of worldwide typological patterns can be highly complex and sophisticated; a recent example is Jing et al. 2022). It is difficult to see any convergence here, and there seem to be fewer and fewer scholars who have the ability to really understand both approaches.

However, some cross-linguistic generalizations about syntax have stood the test of time, and one of them is the differential object marking universal: If a language has differential flagging of objects (P-arguments) conditioned by referential prominence, then it is the referentially prominent objects that are flagged. This universal was first formulated clearly by Moravcsik (1978) (as I noted in this recent blogpost), though I do not remember exactly whether Edith Moravcsik presented it in the 1982-83 class on language universals in Vienna that I attended. Later I was particularly impressed by Bernard Comrie’s work (he was my colleague at MPI-EVA Leipzig between 1998 and 2015), and his 1981/89 book, too, highlighted differential object marking – this has definitely stood the test of time, and is in fact just one of a much larger set of universals (see Haspelmath 2021a on role-reference association universals).

As for Mel’čuk’s approach (his “Meaning-Text Model”), there are also two ways in which it has continued to be important, in my view: On the one hand, dependency syntax has flourished over the last decade or so, and it has become particularly important for general linguists in the context of the Universal Dependencies database (see de Marneffe et al. 2021). For a long time, it the dependency-syntax approach has been somewhat marginal, but Mel’čuk made important contributions to it (Mel’čuk 1988; 2021) and was for a long time one of its main proponents. On the other hand, it was Mel’čuk who first brought home to me the importance of consistent terminology in grammar, and since his 1982 book, he has kept formulating rigorous definitions of terms of general grammar. For a long time, I did not really understand the importance of this endeavor, because I felt that our general concepts must be fuzzy because of the continuities that we observe in the patterns of the world’s languages (and also within languages). But more recently, I realized that our general (or comparative) concepts are somewhat like the units of measurements in the natural sciences, which have to be sharply defined and need not correspond closely to anything in nature (see Haspelmath 2021b, and a few other recent papers). Thus, I keep profiting from the encounters in the early semesters at the University of Vienna, and some of the key issues that were being discussed in the 1980s have not lost their relevance today.


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Baker, Mark. 2021. On Chomsky’s legacy in the study of linguistic diversity. In Allott, Nicholas & Lohndal, Terje & Rey, George (eds.), A companion to Chomsky, 158–171. Wiley. (doi:10.1002/9781119598732.ch10)

Bošković, Željko. 2022. Formalism and, not vs, functionalism. Lingbuzz. (

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