Austronesian languages prefer agent-first orders: Some notes on Riesberg et al. (2019)

In their 2019 paper “How universal is agent-first?”, Sonja Riesberg, Kurt Malcher and Nikolaus Himmelmann argue that western Austronesian languages provide evidence for a general “agent-first” preference, although they often have a neutral order in which the patient (or another type of “undergoer”) unexpectedly precedes the agent. They examine 51 languages of the Philippines and Indonesia/Malaysia, and they find that seven of them show a gap that may be explained by an “agent-first” force (groups 2a-2c on p. 554). Continue reading

Two senses of “lexicon”: The inventorium and the lexemicon

This blogpost proposes two new terms for what Mark Aronoff  (1988) called “idiosyncratic-lexical” items and “categorial-lexical” items: the inventorium is the set of all morphs, constructions and phrasemes of a language (i.e. all idiosyncratic meaningful elements), and the lexemicon is the set of all lexemes of a language, i.e. the members of the major lexical categories noun, verb and adjective. I think that by using these two terms (and one further term, as discussed below), we can avoid confusions that have often been a problem. Continue reading

Marking atypical objects is efficient – does generative grammar challenge this functional explanation of DOM?

Since Caldwell (1856: 271), linguists have thought that the universal tendency of differential object marking (DOM) is explained by the pressure for languages to converge on efficient coding patterns, i.e. to concentrate their coding on the most atypical objects (namely referentially prominent, e.g. animate and definite, object nominals). This explanation was formulated clearly by Bossong (1991) (and also by Comrie 1989), and it seems that more and more evidence for it has been accumulating (e.g. Jäger 2007; Iemmolo 2011; Seržant & Witzlack-Makarevich (eds.) 2018). Even the OT-based formalization by Aissen (2003a) is explicitly functionally based. Continue reading

Defining is never “difficult” – the practical problem is the polysemy of terms

Linguists often begin their papers by noting that the technical terms they use are not immediately clear to everyone, but why is this so? Why don’t we all use our terms with the same meanings, so that we can talk about the substantive issues right away, without clarifying the terminology first? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

On retro-defining, and why there are words after all in general grammar

In 2016, I gave a talk about “Coptic as a language without words” (which is available  on YouTube; the handout is here), which was merely an illustration of a point that I had made in my earlier 2011 paper: That there is no general definition of ‘word’ that applies to all languages and that can be used in general linguistics (e.g. for universal claims about the nature of morphology, or for claims about “morphological typology”). The “word” notion is deeply entrenched in people’s consciousness because of our (Western) spelling habits, but it does not seem to be supported by evidence from morphosyntax of the world’s languages. Continue reading

Are argument nominals “appositional” when the verb carries person indexes? Remarks on Siewierska (2001)

An important paper on grammatical theory that has received little attention is Anna Siewierska’s (2001) paper On the argument status of cross-referencing forms(published in the little-known journal Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses). It inspired me greatly in thinking about person indexes (cf. Haspelmath 2013), the “pronominal argument hypothesis” (Jelinek 1984; LeSourd 2006), and the peculiarities of “head-marking constructions” (Van Valin 2013). Continue reading

Was Darwin a framework-free biologist? A reply to Peter Ludlow

Philosophical issues keep coming up in linguistics, and although I have no particular training in this field, I have sometimes felt that I should make general comments about the nature of linguistic theorizing (e.g. in my 2010 paper on “framework-free grammatical theory”). Now I feel honored that the prominent philosopher Peter Ludlow has devoted a lengthy blogpost to the issue of how p-linguistics relates to g-linguistics and why framework-free science is not possible, in which he reacts to my earlier blogpost about p-linguistics and g-linguistics, where I had discussed his 2019 paper about the philosophy of generative linguistics. Here I continue this conversation. Continue reading

Types of pronouns: Beyond the stereotype

Everyone knows what a stereotypical pronoun is: they, she, he; and all linguists know that there are also interrogative pronouns (who, what), relative pronouns (who, which), and demonstrative pronouns (this, these). Or should we say “demonstrative adjectives”, because they are typically used in adnominal function (this room, these chairs)? And is a pronoun a type of noun, i.e. a “pro-noun” in the literal sense (standing for a noun)? If so, are there “pro-adjectives” and “pro-adverbs” as well? Continue reading

Can linguistics be reunifed? How the “general vs. theoretical” distinction might help

If you are reading this text, you are most probably a p-linguist, at least most of the time. It’s not that I enjoy dividing people into categories, but when there’s conceptual confusion, I think that making up new terms for existing concepts often helps. So we can distinguish between general linguistics and particular linguistics (abbreviated “g-linguistics” and “p-linguistics”), and I have the hope that this distinction might help in reunifying the field of linguistics. So the purpose is not division, but unification, and with this (perhaps overambitious) goal in mind, I wrote the paper “General linguistics must be based on universals” which was just officially published (in Theoretical Linguistics). This blogpost tries to explain my original motivation for writing this paper. Continue reading

Different explanations are mutually compatible: Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive

A few months ago, I was invited to give an online presentation to the Center for Linguistic Sciences of Beijing Normal University (my host was Chia-Jung Pan). This blogpost summarizes the main points of the talk (based on the talk handout; there is also a video of the talk, with questions, on Bilibili). The title of the talk was: “Structural, evolutionary and biocognitive explanations are mutually compatible”. Continue reading

Typological classification is never “difficult“ – the difficulties lie elsewhere

Cross-linguistic research is not easy because one needs to examine languages of diverse structures, but here I argue that typological classification is never “difficult”. The literature contains many references to such difficulties, but in fact, the main practical difficulty is obtaining complete data for a wide range of languages. And of course, one needs to find the right questions to ask if one wants to get interesting answers; but this is not a “difficulty” – it is the primary challenge of any kind of creative research enterprise. Continue reading

What kind of theory do we need for meaningful conversations about grammatical concepts (such as “personal pronoun”)?

The LINGTYP e-mail list is an old-fashioned way of communicating – it has existed for 23 years in its present format, as an unmoderated e-mail list for the typology community (made possibly by the LINGUIST List), and one might think that it should have been replaced by something more modern. But it continues to be very useful, I find, and again this month (July 2021), there were some really interesting discussions, on the meaning of the term “personal pronoun”, as well as on the nature of grammatical concepts. Continue reading

What do we mean by “existential clause”?

Some of our most common technical terms that we all take to be widely understood don’t have a clear meaning – I observed this earlier for the terms “morph”, “bound form” and “affix”, and in this blog post, I will discuss “existential clause” (or “existential sentence”; the difference between these does not matter in the present context). There are some stereotypical cases that everyone would agree are existential clauses, like (1) and (2) but beyond that, the precise extension of the term is not clear. In the spirit of my proposal to provide retro-definitions for widely used terms, I will propose a definition here. Continue reading