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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How typology has solved its “comparability problem”: Some comments on Evans (2020)

Language comparison was long restricted to the question of phylogenetic inheritance (e.g. Bopp 1816; Schleicher 1860), but since authors such as Humboldt (1822) and von der Gabelentz (1891), linguists have also been interested in an ahistorical kind of comparison that is now often called “linguistic typology” – and which has become increasingly prestigious since Greenberg (1963), Chomsky (1981), and the 1997 foundation of the journal Linguistic Typology (LT). Continue reading

On Matthew Spike’s comments on comparative concepts in linguistics

Since the early 20th century, linguists have generally recognized that different languages are different not only historically (with different genealogical origins) and culturally (with different words reflecting their speakers’ cultural needs), but also structurally: The meanings of words cut up reality in different ways, and grammatical categories in different languages do not map straightforwardly onto each other. Phonological systems make use of phonetic possibilities in different ways in different languages. More generally, each language is structurally unique (Haspelmath 2021). Continue reading