What all linguists agree on: Human linguisticality (= the capacity for language) as an attribute of our species

Humans talk and chimpanzees don’t talk. Not even birds talk, even though many bird species can “sing” in some sense. No other species of animals has language in the sense of talking. Even in the absence of complex vocalization abilities, many other species would seem to have the possibility to use their extremities or faces for signing, in the manner of human sign languages. But here again, language is unique to the human species. There may not be much that linguists agree on (though see Hudson 1981 for some hopeful statements), but everyone agrees that language is an attribute of Homo sapiens (and perhaps other hominin species; see, e.g., Dediu & Levinson 2013 on Neanderthal language). Continue reading

An interview with Scott DeLancey about language description and cross-linguistic considerations

Martin Haspelmath: Scott, you have been spending a lot of time in Northeastern India over the last years, and you are currently working on a description of Bodo, a Trans-Himalayan language of Northeast India. In a few weeks’ time, you will attend the NEILS conference in Kokrajhar (Bodoland Territorial Region, Assam, India). As an experienced fieldworker, how do you see the relationship between language-particular description and typological comparison? Should each language be described in its own terms? Continue reading

Nick Evans on the uniqueness of each language and on language comparison

For good reasons, Nicholas (“Nick”) Evans is one of the world’s most prominent linguists. Among his numerous achievements, the best known among experts may be the outstanding grammatical descriptions of Kayardild (1995) and Bininj Kunwok (2003), as well as his work on insubordination (e.g. Evans & Watanabe 2016) and reciprocals (e.g. Evans et al. 2011). But to a wider group of readers, he is of course well-known through the overview paper Evans & Levinson (2009), and the 2009 book “Dying words”, which gives a beautiful nonspecialist overview of worldwide linguistic diversity, its documentation, and its comparison. Continue reading

Against “allomorphy“ (and what to replace it with: morph variants  and suppletive morph sets)

Every linguist knows the term “allomorph”, but we cannot agree on what it means. I will argue here that this is a terminological issue, not a substantive issue. Of course, we disagree on many substantive issues (and in particular, on strategic issues), but there is no reason to “disagree” on terminological issues – this is merely a matter of convenience, and just as we agree on the IPA, we could easily agree on morphosyntactic notation/terminology if we wanted. Continue reading

Why flags are bound forms: A discussion with Bill Croft

A flag is a cover term for an adposition or a case-marker, as I explain in my recent 2019 paper on flagging and indexing (in the journal Te Reo, run by the Linguistic Society of New Zealand). All comparative linguists know that in many cases, it is not quite clear whether we should treat an element (such as the Japanese accusative marker o, or the Arabic dative marker li) as an affix and thus a case-marker, or as an adposition (i.e. a form that is not an affix). The term flag serves as a convenient cover term for comparative linguists in situations where it does not matter. Continue reading

The General Category Fallacy: Why grammatical category-assignment does not give us more insights

Describing a language means finding recurring elements in texts: not only recurring phonemes and words, but also recurring constructions – and to describe a construction, one needs to have classes (= categories) of forms that can go into a constructional slot. Everyone knows this, so where is the problem, and what is the General Category Fallacy (described in my 2018 paper, in §1 and §7)? Continue reading

The “typology vs. theory“ mistake: Why “comparative linguistics“ is the best label

There is a misleading but widespread stereotype in linguistics: that “language typology” is somehow opposed to “linguistic theory”. Dryer (2006) has explained why this is wrong, but the stereotype keeps being repeated, so I feel that I need to write again about it. And in the end, I think that the “typology” label has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced by “comparative linguistics” – also because in other disciplines, the label has completely different associations. Continue reading

Comparative linguistics does not need “causation” or “grammatical theory”

In a 2017 discussion note (in the Journal LT), Randy LaPolla confesses that he was “shocked” when he heard that some comparative linguists base their comparisons on the phenomena found in languages, not some underlying “causal” level of language (2017: 553). For example, in classifying Mandarin Chinese as an SVO (or A-V-P) language, they make use of the comparative concepts A and P, rather than the notion of Mandarin Topic, which is required to state the rules of Mandarin word order (and is in this sense a causal factor determining word order in the language). Continue reading

Right and wrong in typology: Chappell & Creissels versus Stassen on predpossessive constructions

In an excellent recent paper in Linguistic Typology that I recomment to all linguists, Hilary Chappell and Denis Creissels argue against Leon Stassen’s (2005; 2009) classification of Mandarin Chinese predpossessive constructions as in (1).

(1) 她有书 Tā yŏu shū. [3SG have/exist book] ‘She has a book.’ Continue reading

Why there are no zero markers in grammar

Many grammatical constructions in the world’s languages contain (grammatical) markers, i.e. (generally quite short) forms that cannot stand on their own (i.e. they are bound forms), that cannot be focused (i.e. that cannot be the crucial aspect of an answer to a content question), and that are generally said to (help to) express grammatical meanings. For example, many languages have case-markers, tense markers, relative-clause markers (relativizers), person markers (indexes), number markers, definiteness markers (articles), and so on. Continue reading

Maddieson (2018), Kiparsky (2018), and the nature of phonological comparison

In the recent volume on Phonological typology (Hyman & Plank (eds.) 2018), the editors complain that phonology is not given sufficient attention by morphosyntax-heavy mainstream typology, so it may perhaps be reassuring to note that “phonology is not different” in one respect: The nature of the things to be compared is often unclear. Continue reading

A conversation between Gillian Ramchand and Martin Haspelmath, on different perspectives in linguistics

Martin: Many thanks, Gillian, for contributing a substantive comment on a recent blogpost about describing and comparing languages and framework-free theory. Instead of leaving your comment simply as it, here are some reactions of mine in a dialogue form (and thanks for adding a few more points, marked in italics below). Continue reading

A discussion with Edith Moravcsik about singulative markers and individualizers

Martin Haspelmath: Edith, we have a long history of interacting, starting with the first course on universals that I attended at the University of Vienna (back in 1982, as I noted here). So I’m really glad that you took an interest in some of my recent work on singulative marking (Haspelmath & Karjus 2017). Continue reading

Confusing p-linguistics and g-linguistics: Philosopher Ludlow on “framework-free theory”

This post was prompted by a recent paper by Peter Ludlow (a Michigan/Illinois-based philosopher) on “the philosophy of generative linguistics” (2019), where he targets a 2010 paper of mine for criticism, and (quite flatteringly) pits me against Darwin. But he confuses general linguistic theory with language-particular theory, and as this confusion seems to be more widespread, it probably deserves some discussion. Continue reading