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e-mail list for the typology community (made possibly by the LINGUIST List), and one might think that it should have been replaced by something more modern.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

Affixes are bound forms of a special kind – they are not defined by their phonological properties

A few weeks ago, a new paper of mine on bound forms and affixes was published by the journal Voprosy Jazykoznanija. This has long been the most important Russian linguistics journal, and it now publishes articles in English as well. Here’s an introduction to some of the key points of the paper (Haspelmath 2021a). Continue reading

On David Adger on reduced innateness and “placeholders for a better understanding”

In a recent blogpost, David Adger replied to my earlier post about “abandoning innateness”, trying to explain to me how one can be a mainstream generative grammarian (MGGer) and still say that most of the technical devices of one’s analyses are not innate. (I’m saying “MGGer” here, because practitioners of HPSG have long been explicit that they do not assume that the devices of their framework are innate; cf. Borsley & Müller (2021), in the forthcoming HPSG handbook). Continue reading

Some (ex-)generative grammarians who are abandoning innateness

In the 1960s, a view of language became famous according to which key aspects of grammatical structures are innate and “grow” in the child (rather than being learned). This came in two prominent versions: the “formal and substantive universals” of Chomsky (1965), and later the “principles and parameters” of Chomsky’s (1981) Government and Binding (GB) approach. But in the 21st century, there seems to be less and less certainty about the idea of innate grammatical structures (called “universal grammar”, Continue reading

We are all constructionists

Many linguists use ideological-sounding labels to identify themselves (or their colleagues), and I keep wondering about the purpose and content of these labels – what exactly is a cognitive linguist , for example? Is it someone who shares Lakoff’s (1991) “cognitive commitment” (to make their account of human language accord with what is generally known about the mind and brain from other disciplines”)? But why “commitment” – isn’t this simply a general and uncontroversial principle of science? Continue reading

The innate grammar blueprint: What is it, and why isn’t it a crazy idea?

Many linguists assume that languages are made up of the same basic building blocks – not the same words, of course, but the same phonological features (e.g. Chomsky & Halle 1968), the same morphosyntactic features (e.g. Corbett 2012), the same semantic primitives (e.g. Goddard (ed.) 2008), the same types of rules or constraints, and the same components (e.g. syntax vs. morphology), as well as the same overall architecture (e.g. Jackendoff 1997). Continue reading

How prominence scales help us explain differential object marking: A reply to Ormazabal & Romero (2019)

Scales of referential prominence (animate > inanimate, definite > indefinite, locuphoric (1st/2nd) > aliophoric (3rd), topical > non-topical) are known to play a role in differential object marking generalizations. But what exactly is their role? Do they merely “capture descriptive generalizations”, or is there “explanatory power” in theories that invoke them (such as Aissen 2003; Haspelmath 2021)? Continue reading

Comments on Himmelmann on description and comparison

Himmelmann (2019) (finally available on Lingbuzz in January 2021) criticizes my 2010 and 2018 papers on comparison and description, and it might seem that he is advocating a different approach, but (as is easy to see when comparing his work and my work) we actually agree on what is the best approach for descriptive and comparative linguistics – as do other authors such as Dahl, van der Auwera, Dryer, Bickel, Moravcsik and Lazard (whom Himmelmann also mentions). The real disagreement is with generative grammarians, Continue reading

A conversation with Roberta D’Alessandro on the role of “theory” in grammatical research

The following “conversation” consists of passages from Roberta D’Alessandro’s 2021 commentary (on Lingbuzz) on my 2021 paper on general linguistics (to appear in Theoretical Linguistics), plus some reactions from me. I thought that such an immediate reply to some of the points might be useful, as D’Alessandro’s commentary has proved to be very popular (hundreds of downloads within a few days). Continue reading

Acceptability judgements tell us about social norms, not about internal systems

Since the 1960s, many works on syntax have primarily relied on acceptability judgements, rather than on examples attested in corpora, as was common in earlier times. In Jespersen’s Essentials of English grammar (1933), there were many invented examples, but also quite a few observed corpus attestations (from authors such as Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Carlyle). But over the last five decades, syntacticians have relied much more on experimental methods, which allowed them to make great progress in exploring the incredibly rich patterns of the major languages. (Note that I include acceptability judgements of all kinds under “experiments” here, because they all go beyond pure observation of naturally occurring speech.) Continue reading

Locuphoric person forms and speech act participants

Grammarians often have occasion to distinguish between 1st/2nd person forms on the one hand, and 3rd person forms on the other – that these two behave differently in many languages has been well-known since Benveniste (1947) and Forchheimer (1953). Over the last two decades, the term “SAP” (= speech act participant) has become fairly common in typological circles when reference is needed to 1st/2nd person forms (e.g. Zúñiga 2006; Jacques & Antonov 2014; DeLancey 2018). Continue reading