How the individuation scale helps explain universals of coding in countability classes

It sometimes happens that different scholars arrive at similar conclusions more or less independently, and such cases are probably particularly good indications that they are on the right track. It seems that Scott Grimm’s recent study of count-mass, singular-plural and singulative-collective noun pairs (published in 2018) is a good example of this, as its results converge amazingly with a study published by Andres Karjus and myself in 2017. Continue reading

No progress on differential object marking: Comments and reflections on Kalin (2018)

From my perspective, differential object marking (DOM) – the universal tendency for prominent objects to get special marking – has been well-understood since the 1980s, but even though the explanation was clearly stated in Comrie (1989) (and also formulated clearly in Croft (1988) and Bossong (1991)), many linguists seems to have forgotten about it. Continue reading

Are we making progress in understanding differential object marking?

The topic of differential object marking (DOM), or more broadly differential argument marking, continues to be popular in different circles. The journal Linguistics had a special issue in 2014 with 11 papers, there is a recent LangSci volume on the diachrony of differential argument marking (coedited by my Leipzig colleague Ilja A. Seržant), and there is also a steady stream of MGG papers on the topic Continue reading

Is iconicity a better explanation for inalienable adpossessive marking after all?

Many languages have different adpossessive (= adnominal possessive) constructions for inalienable possessed nouns (= body-part or kinship nouns) and all other nouns. For example, Maltese has id Pietru ‘Pietru’s hand’ with no marker when a body-part is possessed, but il-ktieb ta’ Pietru [the-book of Pietru] with a possessive preposition when an alienable noun is possessed. Continue reading

More on universals of case-marking from the perspective of nanosyntax: Van Baal & Don (2018)

In a recent blogpost, I promised that I’d pay more attention to the nanosyntactic approach if the authors look at more representative samples of the world’s languages, and it turns out that this is not difficult, because the fair open-access journal Glossa regularly publishes papers in this vein. A recent paper is van Baal & Don (2018), on universals of possessive pronouns, based on a sample of 50 languages. Continue reading

Coexpression patterns of complementizers, nanosyntax, and productivity

Since the 1980s, typologists have often summarized coexpression patterns (or “polysemy patterns”, or “syncretism patterns”) by semantic maps, as illustrated here for case expression (Narrog & Ito 2007: 282):

(For general introductions to semantic maps, see Haspelmath 2003; Georgakopoulos & Polis 2018). The claims about possible coexpression pattern that a semantic map makes Continue reading

Should descriptive grammars be “typologically informed”, and what does this mean?

A recent issue of the journal “Linguistic Typology” contains a number of articles on the usefulness of typology, among others one by Nikolaus Himmelmann on the usefulness of typology for language documentation (2016). Himmelmann bluntly criticizes the theoretical stance of separating description from comparison: Continue reading

Why is configuration expressed by adpositions, and direction by case? A discussion of Lestrade et al. (2011)

Complex spatial flags often consist of two or even three elements, of which typically one corresponds to the configuration (‘inside’, ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘next to’, etc.), and one to the direction (‘to’, ‘at’, ‘from’, ‘via’), as illustrated by English, Finnish and Lezgian below. These sorts of phenomena are the topic of an interesting typological paper by Lestrade, de Schepper and Zwarts (2011). Continue reading

Stephen Anderson on “diachronic explanation” (of what?)

In a number of publications over the years, Stephen Anderson has advanced the idea that phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena should often be explained diachronically, rather than with reference to the innate Language Faculty (a.k.a. Universal Grammar) (cf. Anderson 2005; 2008; 2016). For someone who has been a very prominent generative phonologist and morphologist (cf. Anderson 1974; 1992), this is remarkable. In the generative meaninstream, very few linguists have even entertained the possibility that core properties of grammars (such as distinctive features and alternations in phonology, or case-marking rules in syntax) might be explained by anything other than UG. The notion that “linguistic theory” (= what generative linguists are engaged in) consists in elucidating the constraints of our cognitive apparatus on possible mental grammars is still widely taken for granted. Thus, Anderson’s arguments are interesting Continue reading

Strong evidence that the roots of binding constraints are pragmatic from Cole et al. (2015)

Cole, Hermon, and Yanti’s (2015) new paper is an extremely important contribution that is likely to have a powerful impact on debates that focus on where grammatical constraints in languages come from. The authors compare Traditional Jambi Malay (TJM) with a dialect of Jambi Malay spoken in Jambi City (JCM). TJM is an example of a language in which the longer forms involve the addition of an intensifier or emphatic, which serves to indicate the pragmatically marked nature of the coreference (König & Siemund 2000; Levinson 2000). Continue reading

Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading

How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading