Facing the challenge of general linguistics when nature doesn’t help us

The following is a summary of an invited talk I presented at NoSLiP 2018 in Oslo in February 2018. I used the subtitle “Toward an IPA of morphosyntax”, echoing some remarks of an earlier post, though this is still a fairly distant goal. But in this talk I say more to motivate the need for it.

1. The general linguistics problem: Human Language is unobservable

In the 19th century, most linguists were particular linguists Continue reading

An interview with Dan Slobin on diversity of categories, acquisition, and sign language

Martin Haspelmath: Dan, you have shown an interest in my distinction between comparative concepts and descriptive categories, and you told me that you recently read my new paper “How comparative concepts and linguistic categories are different”. Can you say what you liked about it and how it relates to your own work?

Dan Slobin: I read your paper with great enthusiasm and pleasure. It makes your familiar argument precise, elegant, and, in my opinion, strongly convincing. Continue reading

A plea for pronounceable language names

Suppose you hear that a colleague is working on a language called “@t~q^M#%”. What is your reaction? What’s wrong with the language name “@t~q^M#%”? It’s perfectly unique, it consists only of ASCII characters so is eminently typable, and it has a certain beauty. But of course it lacks pronounceability, so is it good as a name? In general, we expect a language to have a name that we can use in speaking about the language, not only in writing. Continue reading

Why should we bother about terminology in linguistics?

Those who know me better will be aware that I keep insisting on careful use of terminology in linguistics, especially in grammar (my main area of research), but also in other areas – for example, I often point out that it’s very problematic to use the term borrowing only for cases of copying (of words and other features from a donor language) that were NOT due to imperfect learning of a second language (i.e. substrate effects). The reason is that we need a general term for all kinds of copying, because in many or most cases we don’t know the circumstances under which the copying took place. Continue reading

Dictionaria: Farewell to linear dictionaries

Dictionaries are structured databases, and they are linear only because of the inflexible paper medium of earlier times. Like linear phonebooks, linear timetable books, or antiquarian book catalogs, they are bound to disappear, but the process seems to be much slower. I’ve been wondering if there is a reason for this – does linearity perhaps serve a useful purpose in dictionaries? Continue reading

Do we need a “framework” for syntax? A conversation between Richard Larson and Martin Haspelmath

(The following is a slightly edited conversation that took place on Facebook recently, on Roberta D’Alessandro’s page. There’s also one comment by Roberta. It’s reproduced here with permission.)

Martin Haspelmath (Reacting to a Facebook comment that it’s hard to understand the syntax of human languages): Syntax suddenly starts working if it’s framework-free! But I admit it may not be so cool…

Richard Larson: Same is true for physics! It suddenly “starts working” if you toss out all this silly theorizing about forces, particles and least effort principles! 🙂

Martin Haspelmath: Have you read my paper about framework-free theory, Richard? I’d be curious to hear what you’d say about it. I find the reasoning quite compelling, and I’d like to hear counterarguments. Continue reading

“Haspelmath goes minimalist”: A memorable workshop on universals in Abruzzo

Last week I was at one of the most unusual and stimulating events I’ve attended in a long time – a workshop on “Variation and universals” organized by Roberta D’Alessandro and Marc van Oostendorp, bringing together syntacticians and phonologists, macrotypologists and microvariantionists, and generativists and linguists who were unsure how to describe themselves. The goal was to think at a higher level than usually about the role of typological data and universal claims in understanding language(s). Continue reading

Should descriptive grammars be “typologically informed”, and what does this mean?

A recent issue of the journal “Linguistic Typology” contains a number of articles on the usefulness of typology, among others one by Nikolaus Himmelmann on the usefulness of typology for language documentation (2016). Himmelmann bluntly criticizes the theoretical stance of separating description from comparison: Continue reading

Why is configuration expressed by adpositions, and direction by case? A discussion of Lestrade et al. (2011)

Complex spatial flags often consist of two or even three elements, of which typically one corresponds to the configuration (‘inside’, ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘next to’, etc.), and one to the direction (‘to’, ‘at’, ‘from’, ‘via’), as illustrated by English, Finnish and Lezgian below. These sorts of phenomena are the topic of an interesting typological paper by Lestrade, de Schepper and Zwarts (2011). Continue reading

An interview with Sonia Cristofaro about diachronic change and typological explanation

(The following conversation reflects some of the discussions that we had over the last few years, and particularly at a recent mini-workshop at WIKO Berlin.)

Martin Haspelmath:  In the typological literature of the last decade, one finds more and more instances of people claiming that this or that typological generalization actually has a diachronic explanation. Continue reading

How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

Quite a few people have argued in recent times that typological distributions should be explained with reference to diachronic change (e.g. Bybee (1988; 2006; 2008), Blevins (2004), Anderson (2005; 2016), (Plank 2007), Creissels (2008), and Cristofaro (2010; 2013; 2014)). As Bickel et al. (2015: 29) put it:

“statistical universals are not really synchronic in nature, but are rather the result of underlying diachronic mechanisms that cause languages to change in preferred or ‘natural’ ways”

This view seems to have been articulated first by Greenberg (1969; 1978), Continue reading

Number suppletion vs. case suppletion: Does “locality” provide an explanation?

Whenever generative approaches claim that they can account for broadly cross-linguistic regularities, I try to pay close attention. In a recent short paper in Linguistic Inquiry, Moskal (2015) is concerned with the generalization that nouns may show number suppletion (e.g. Russian rebënok ‘child’, deti ‘children’), but almost never suppletion for case, whereas personal pronouns often show number suppletion (e.g. English I/we) as well as case suppletion (e.g. English I/me, we/us). This seems to be a robust observation, Continue reading

The evolution (or diachrony) of “language evolution”

Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?

One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Continue reading