What kinds of “null argument” or “argument ellipsis” phenomena are there? Argument omission as a central question of valency research

There are several different situations where an argument that might be expected to be present is not present. They have been given a wide variety of terms: “null arguments”, “omission”, “ellipsis”, “deletion”, “implicit arguments”, and so on. The question is important, because some central grammatical notions such as “transitive verb” depend on this. For example is a sentence such as (1b) an intransitive sentence, or is it just as transitive as (1a) except that the direct object is not realized? And does (2) exhibit “valency-reduction”, because the agent argument was “removed”?

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Revisiting the serial verb construction concept – is it relevant for cross-linguistic comparison?

At an inspiring recent conference at the University of Mainz, quite a few talks discussed the notion of serial verb construction (SVC). I had written about SVCs in Haspelmath (2016), so I followed and took part in the discussion with interest. In this post, I share some of the thoughts that came up, in part presented in my talk (the handout is available here). Continue reading

Where I went wrong (I): “Iconicity” in basic-derived relations in morphology

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”). Continue reading

What is “phonological fusion”? A plea for clear concepts such as boundness or welding

Many linguists have the intuition that affixes are “attached” to their bases, and we often informally use metaphorical terms such as “fused”, “cohering” and “tightly linked”. There is nothing to be said against metaphors in technical terminology, but do these expressions have a precise meaning? Since my 2011 paper in which I expressed doubts about the “word” concept, I have been thinking about better ways of capturing key distinctions of morphosyntax terminologically. Even earlier, I questioned the well-known “agglutination vs. flection” distinction (in Haspelmath 2009; originally presented in 1999), which has its roots in racist ideas about the superiority of Indo-European (“Aryan”) languages that were popular in German Romanticism. Continue reading

Non-Structuralist Linguistics (guest post by Randy LaPolla)

Guest post by Randy J. LaPolla (罗仁地), Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai

[The title of this post evokes and is meant as a tribute to Mickey Noonan’s 1999 paper, “Non-Structuralist syntax”. Although Noonan is arguing for a constructionist and integrative approach, he uses the term “syntax”, which doesn’t exist separately in a truly constructionist approach. Many claiming to be doing constructionist studies actually see the constructionist approach as just another form of syntactic analysis, but this is missing the whole non-componential nature of the constructionist approach (see Croft 2021 for discussion). The text was presented as a talk at Nankai University on 2022-05-25 as part of their “Experimental Linguistics” Online Forum, and is to appear (in Chinese) in the journal Experimental Linguistics.] Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The first clear statement of the differential object marking (DOM) universal: Moravcsik (1978)

One of the most famous phenomena in argument flagging is differential object marking (DOM), or split P flagging: a situation where some P-arguments bear a special accusative flag and others don’t, typically depending on referential prominence (definiteness, animacy, topicality, etc.). The following examples are taken from my 2021 paper on split argument marking: Continue reading

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