Do we store “words”? Moving beyond the “lexicon” confusion

Many linguists are aware that two of the most basic concepts of our field, “word” and “lexicon”, are used in confusing ways. But can we do something about this, other than pointing out the confusions once in a while? I now think we can, by defining “word” in a precise way (Haspelmath 2023), and by replacing “lexicon/lexical” in by one of four other terms if necessary (set of words, lexemicon, inventorium, mentalicon). For mnemonic reasons and because it was fun, I published my paper about “word” in the journal WORD, and my paper about “lexicon” was recently published in the journal “Lexique” (Haspelmath 2024b). Continue reading

Where I went wrong (II): Converbs are not “non-finite verbal adverbs”

Another way in which I went wrong in the 1990s was by proposing a definition of converb as a “non-finite verbal adverb” (see this earlier blogpost about my error about iconicity). At the time (Haspelmath 1995), I was quite naïve about the traditional notions of “finiteness” and “adverb”, and I now think that defining “converb” in this way was not a good idea. Continue reading

Against (lexical-)categorial typology: Why school grammars are basically right

Syntax textbooks often emphasize that word classes must be identified by grammatical tests, rather than by their meanings – in contrast to traditional school grammars and basic pedagogical texts, which often still say, for example, that “Nouns are a part of speech that indicate people, places, things, or ideas“. Continue reading

Distributed Morphology is right: There is no “lexicon”

The terms lexicon and lexical have a range of different meanings in linguistics, and I have been wondering whether they could perhaps be replaced by something better. Thus, in the spirit of my 2006 paper against markedness, I now distinguish four senses of the traditional term “lexical (item)” (in a paper that will appear in the journal Lexique): Continue reading

The unsolved non-uniqueness problem and the dilemma of theoretical p-linguistics

Structural analyses of grammatical patterns are often non-unique, as was classically observed by Chao (1934): Different analyses often work equally well, to all appearances. This would not be a problem if linguists did not typically work with the background assumption that there is only one true analysis, which will lead us to deeper insights about Human Language in general. Continue reading

The description-comparison approach and the audacious Chomskyan approach (or: how to frame better)

According to George Lakoff, we should frame ourselves, because otherwise we will be framed by others. This is an interesting thought, and indeed, linguists of different orientations constantly frame others and themselves. I have not been happy with many of these framings, and here I’ll make another attempt. Continue reading

Differential-coding scales and the Actionality Hierarchy (comments on Becker & Malchukov 2022)

The best-known differential-coding scale is the well-known “extended animacy hierarchy” in (1)

(1) 1st/2nd > 3rd > human > animate > inanimate

This scale can be taken as a basis for two well-known generalizations about semantic-role coding, about differential (or split) object marking (DOM, e.g. Bossong 1991; Aissen 2003) and split (or differential) ergative marking (e.g. Dixon 1994). Informally and in a simplified way, they can be stated as in (2) and (3). Continue reading

The journal WORD, and Greenberg and Jakobson in New York (1948-49)

I recently published a paper in WORD (“Defining the word”), and this made me curious about the fascinating history of this journal. It turns out that it has close links with the Greenberg-Jakobson connection that I have been interested in for quite some time. My long-standing interest in asymmetric coding patterns (e.g. Haspelmath 2021) was kindled by Croft’s (1990) “typological markedness”, which is based on Greenberg (1966), a major contribution to typology that was largely overlooked for a long time (unlike his 1963 paper, which became famous fast). In turn, Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) was clearly influenced by Roman Jakobson  (1896-1982), from whom he adopted the term “markedness”. Continue reading

From radical critique to constructive proposal: “Defining the word” (2023)

What exactly is a word? How can we distinguish morphology (= word structure) from syntax? How do we tell phrases apart from complex words, and clitics from affixes? In my 2011 paper (“The indeterminacy of word segmentation”) I said that we don’t know: The various criteria that we typically use do not necessarily give the same results, and it could be that a notion of “word” plays no role in general grammar. Continue reading

Boycotting our colleagues from Russia: An atmosphere of fear in German academia?

[Normally this blog is reserved for strictly scientific issues. This post is an exception, about a situation when politics gets in the way of science.]

Over the last few months, several international conferences in Germany announced that they were forced to boycott participants from Russia because of a requirement imposed by their funders, the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany’s main funding agency for academic research).
Continue reading

Sustainable dictionaries of low-resource languages: The “Dictionaria” series and its user-friendliness

Documentary and descriptive linguists often produce dictionaries of understudied languages, and speakers of these languages often show great interest in these dictionaries – typically a lot more interest than in grammatical analyses, which are much less accessible to untrained users. Like other aspects of language documentation, the results should be sustainable, which means that they conform to the FAIR principles for data: the data are findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. (Of course, this applies only to those languages whose speakers are happy to have descriptions of their languages made available to the whole world without restrictions.) Continue reading