In this post and in a few that are planned for the future, I will highlight some things that (I now think) were wrong in my earlier scientific writings. Science is supposed to be self-correcting, and these posts will demonstrate that this can happen also within a scholar’s career (not only when a new generation takes over, as is expressed by “Planck’s principle”: “Science progresses one funeral at a time”).
Of course, we all make many small mistakes, so I will focus on a few that seem bigger mistakes to me which are worth highlighting, also because I’m sometimes not the only one to have made them.
I will begin with the idea that basic-derived relations in morphology show the kinds of asymmetries that we observe because of an iconic principle. This was expressed very clearly in the intro section in my most widely cited paper: “More on the typology of inchoative-causative verb alternations” (Haspelmath 1993):
“The formally derived (or marked) words are generally also semantically derived in that they have some additional meaning element that is lacking in the formally basic (or unmarked) word. This correlation between the formal and the semantic basic-derived (or markedness) relationships has been identified as an instance of diagrammatic iconicity, an interesting case of external motivation for linguistic structures (e.g. Haiman 1980, Mayerthaler 1981).” (Haspelmath 1993: 87)
At the time, the idea of iconicity was quite popular, and I was particularly influenced by Bybee (1985) and Croft (1990), who in turn were influenced by Haiman (1980; 1983; 1985). Givón (1991: 106) expressed the idea as follows: “Categories that are cognitively marked –i.e. complex – tend to also to structurally marked” (he called it the “meta-iconic markedness principle”).
In the 1993 paper, the specific question I discussed was the directionality of asymmetric coding in causal-noncausal alternations such as those in (2) (at the time, I used “causative” for causal, and “inchoative” for noncausal): Even for the same verb meaning, some languages have an additional marker for the noncausal member of a verb pair (an anticausative marker), and others for the causal member (a causative marker).
But the paper found a general tendency for some verb meanings (such as ‘freeze’ and ‘dry’) to show causative coding of the verb pair, while others (such as ‘break’ and ‘close’) tend to show anticausative coding. Croft (1990: 50) had noted that “the more typically the change of state requires an external agent, the more likely the causative type will be unmarked”. This was supported by my findings, but how did it relate to the expected iconicity explanation? I had started out my paper with the observation (due to Mel’čuk 1967) that there was an apparent problem with anticausatives, because their coding seems to be counter-iconic: The causal member (e.g. Russian rasplavit’ ‘melt (tr.)’) is basic, while the noncausal member (which is semantically simpler) has an additional anticausative marker (e.g. Russian rasplavit’s -sja ‘melt (intr.)’).
So how did I solve this apparent problem in the 1993 paper? I appealed to a difference between “objective meaning” and “conceptual/cognitive meaning” (in this, I was influenced by Lakoff 1987), as follows:
“If the semantic properties of a word are only the objective semantic features discovered by semantic decomposition (as, e.g., in Mel’čuk 1967), then causatives are always semantically more complex than inchoatives and the existence of or even preference for anticausatives is a mystery. But iconicity in language is based on conceptual meaning, and the correlation between formal and semantic basic-derived (or markedness) relationships should be understood in cognitive terms.” (Haspelmath 1993: 106)
Unfortunately, there was no good basis for this distinction, and in the next paragraph I went on to talk about “prototypes” and other things that I did not really understand. The typological contribution of the paper was clear (and it was quickly picked up by Levin & Rappaport Hovav (1995) in their MIT Press book, paving the way for my paper’s subsequent fame), but the explanation was murky and implausible. This part of my 1993 paper was thus wrong.
It was only after I read a little-known thesis by Saundra K. Wright (supervised by Beth Levin in 2001) that I realized that the decisive factor might be frequency, not anything about the (“objective” or “cognitive”) meaning. I had met Saundra accidentally during a visit of California State University at Chico in 2003, where she told me that her thesis was also inspired by my 1993 paper. So this was a good instance of a wrong but interesting paper inspiring new research and helping to correct the earlier claims.
After having understood that the explanation in terms of “conceptual meaning” in my 1993 paper was wrong, I went on to criticize the concept of markedness (in 2006), and to argue for frequency-based explanations over iconicity-based explanations in morphology more generally (2008). But it was only in 2014 that we published a paper where we showed that the frequency skewing found for English by Wright was valid more generally (Haspelmath et al. 2014), and this was followed by an even more general paper where I argued that frequency-based predictability explains not only the tendencies for typical causative/anticausative pairs, but also various other tendencies (Haspelmath 2016).
Quite generally, we have been observing a shift away from the iconicity explanations of the 1980s and 1990s, toward efficiency-based explanations which take into account frequency of use and predictability (e.g. Gibson et al. 2019; Levshina 2022). So my mistake in 1993 was also due to the fashion of the time. Fashions exert a powerful influence on all people at all times (especially on younger people), but in science, they can be rather detrimental, and scientists must try to focus on evidence and arguments, and not to be unduly influenced by fashion. So is the new focus on efficiency that I noted yet another fashion? Maybe, but it is interesting to see that Jespersen (1941) expressed very much the same basic idea eighty years ago, at a time when it was not fashionable and when Jespersen was eighty years old:
“In linguistic changes we see the constant interplay of two opposite tendencies, one of an individual, and the other of a social character, one towards ease and the other toward distinctness. The former is the tendency to take things easy and to follow the line of least resistance–to say it bluntly, an outcome of human indolence or laziness… The opposite tendency is an effort to be clearly and precisely understood, and to make as vivid and convincing an impression on the hearer as possible; each articulation is therefore made slowly and distinctly, and great exertion is made to choose the most lucid and forcible expression… In extreme cases this may lead to pompousness and over-emphasis.” (Jespersen 1941: 15-17)
Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Croft, William. 1990. Possible verbs and the structure of events. In Tsohatzidis, Savas L. (ed.), Meanings and prototypes: Studies in linguistic categorization, 48–73. London: Routledge.
Gibson, Edward & Futrell, Richard & Piandadosi, Steven T. & Dautriche, Isabelle & Mahowald, Kyle & Bergen, Leon & Levy, Roger. 2019. How efficiency shapes human language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 23(5). 389–407. (doi:10.1016/j.tics.2019.02.003)
Givón, T. 1991. Markedness in grammar: Distributional, communicative and cognitive correlates of syntactic structure. Studies in Language. International Journal sponsored by the Foundation “Foundations of Language” 15(2). 335–370. (doi:10.1075/sl.15.2.05giv)
Haiman, John. 1980. The iconicity of grammar: Isomorphism and motivation. Language 56(3). 515–540. (doi:10.2307/414448)
Haiman, John. 1983. Iconic and economic motivation. Language 59(4). 781–819. (doi:10.2307/413373)
Haiman, John. 1985. Natural syntax: Iconicity and erosion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haspelmath, Martin. 1993. More on the typology of inchoative/causative verb alternations. In Comrie, Bernard & Polinsky, Maria (eds.), Causatives and transitivity, 87–120. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of Linguistics 42(1). 25–70. (doi:10.1017/S0022226705003683)
Haspelmath, Martin. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries. Cognitive linguistics 19(1). 1–33.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2016. Universals of causative and anticausative verb formation and the spontaneity scale. Lingua Posnaniensis 58(2). 33–63.
Haspelmath, Martin & Calude, Andreea & Spagnol, Michael & Narrog, Heiko & Bamyacı, Eli̇f. 2014. Coding causal–noncausal verb alternations: A form–frequency correspondence explanation1. Journal of Linguistics 50(3). 587–625. (doi:10.1017/S0022226714000255)
Jespersen, Otto. 1941. Efficiency in linguistic change. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Levin, Beth & Rappaport Hovav, Malka. 1995. Unaccusativity: At the syntax-lexical semantics interface. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Levshina, Natalia. 2022. Communicative efficiency: Language structure and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mayerthaler, Willi. 1981. Morphologische Natürlichkeit. Wiesbaden: Athenaion.
Mel’čuk, Igor. 1967. K ponjatiju slovoobrazovanija. Izvestija AN SSSR: Serija literatury i jazyka 26(4). 352–362.
Wright, Saundra K. 2001. Internally caused and externally caused change of state verbs. Northwestern University. (Ph.D. dissertation.)